The current frightening disruption caused by an epidemic makes Philadelphians interested in the city’s history recall similar afflictions in the past. One was the Yellow Fever outburst in 1793, the worst outbreak of the disease in American history.
The name came from the color it turned victims’ skin.
As the weather became warm that year, many people developed fevers. They suffered headaches, jaundice, muscle pain, nausea, vomiting and fatigue. Dark blood trickled from every orifice.
Whole families died. People collapsed in the streets. Men stopped shaking hands, and covered their faces with cloths. Those who could afford it moved out of the city.
Philadelphia was the capital of the new United States; the Constitution was four years old. President Washington moved to the healthier suburb of Germantown.
Schools were closed. Some roads were guarded to keep refugees away. Some wagons arriving in the city were burned. Letters and newspapers were handled with tongs.
What was destroying lives, scientists say, was the first virus found to cause human diseases. It killed roughly 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 population.
One of the most memorable persons of that era was a medical student named Stubbins Ffirth. (Yes, with a double F.)
Stubbins Ffirth became notable for his unusual investigations into the cause of Yellow Fever. He theorized that the disease was not contagious, believing that its prevalence in summers and the drop in cases during winters showed that it was a result of the heat and stress of the summer months.
He started experimenting in cold weather by making incisions on his arms and smearing fever victims’ vomit into the cuts. He also poured some into his eyeballs. He fried some of the vomit and inhaled the fumes. He did not become ill.
Undaunted, he drank some undiluted vomit. He smeared his body with fever victims’ blood, saliva and urine. He still didn’t contract the fever. He concluded that Yellow Fever was not contagious.
Ffirth published his findings in 1804 in a paper entitled “A Treatise on Malignant Fever, with an Attempt to Prove its Non-Contagious, Non-Malignant Nature."
While correct that Yellow Fever was significantly more prevalent in summer, Ffirth’s explanation was incorrect.
In the late 1800s, scientists began realizing that strange microbes smaller than bacteria caused some disorders. U. S. Army physician Walter Reed in 1900 confirmed a theory: that mosquito bites transmitted the Yellow Fever virus.
Today, more than 200 viruses are known, including the head cold, measles, mumps, AIDS, polio, smallpox, rabies, and our current coronavirus.
Perhaps the most interesting story connected with the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic is disputed by some unromantic historians, but I like to believe it. It began when Quaker lawyer John Todd sent his wife, Dorothea, to live out in the country to avoid infection. He stayed in his house, which was, and still is, at Fourth and Walnut streets. John died of the disease.
The lovely young widow stayed here in the new nation’s capital. In late 1794, she had a date with a congressman, Aaron Burr. Stepping out of her house on that wintry day, she slipped on some ice on the brick pavement.
Another congressman was passing by, and helped prevent her from falling. Naturally, Congressman Burr introduced them: “Dolley, I’d like you to meet Mr. Madison.”