History of yellow fever

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Sugar curing house, 1762. Sugar pots and jars in sugar plantations served as breeding places for larvae of A. aegypti, the vector of yellow fever.

The evolutionary origins of yellow fever most likely lie in Africa.[1][2] Phylogenetic analyses indicate that the virus originated from East or Central Africa, with transmission between primates and humans, and spread from there to West Africa.[3] The virus as well as the vector Aedes aegypti, a mosquito species, were probably brought to the western hemisphere and the Americas by slave trade ships from Africa after the first European exploration in 1492.[4]

The first outbreaks of disease that were probably yellow fever occurred in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean on Barbados in 1647 and Guadalupe in 1648.[5] Barbados had undergone an ecological transformation with the introduction of sugar cultivation by the Dutch. Plentiful forests present in the 1640s were completely gone by the 1660s. By the early 18th century, the same transformation related to sugar cultivation had occurred on the larger islands of Jamaica, Hispaniola and Cuba. Spanish colonists recorded an outbreak in 1648 on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico that may have been yellow fever. The illness was called xekik (black vomit) by the Maya.

At least 25 major outbreaks followed in North America, such as in Philadelphia 1793, where several thousand people died, more than nine percent of the total population. The American government, including George Washington, had to flee the city, which was the capital of the United States at the time. In 1878, about 20,000 people died in an epidemic in towns of the Mississippi River Valley and its tributaries. The last major outbreak in the US occurred in 1905 in New Orleans. Major outbreaks also occurred in Europe in the nineteenth century in Atlantic ports following the arrival of sailing vessels from the Caribbean, most often from Havana.[6] Outbreaks occurred in Barcelona in 1803, 1821, and 1870. In the last outbreak, 1,235 fatalities were recorded of an estimated 12,000 cases.[7] Smaller outbreaks occurred in Saint-Nazaire in France, Swansea in Wales, and in other European port cities following the arrival of vessels carrying the mosquito vector.[8][9]

The first mention of the disease by the name "yellow fever" occurred in 1744.[10] Many famous people, mostly during the 18th through the 20th centuries, contracted and then recovered from, or died of, yellow fever.

Philadelphia: 1793

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 struck during the summer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the highest fatalities in the United States were recorded. The disease probably was brought by refugees and mosquitoes on ships from Saint-Domingue. It rapidly spread in the port city, in the crowded blocks along the Delaware River. About 5000 people died, ten percent of the population of 50,000. The city was then the national capital, and the national government left the city, including President George Washington. Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York suffered repeated epidemics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as did other cities along the East and Gulf coasts.[11]

Haiti: 1790–1802

The majority of the British soldiers sent to Haiti in the 1790s died of disease, chiefly yellow fever.[12][13] There has been considerable debate over whether the number of deaths caused by disease was exaggerated.[14]

In 1802–1803, an army of forty thousand sent by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte of France to Saint Domingue to suppress the Haitian Revolution mounted by slaves, was decimated by an epidemic of yellow fever (among the casualties was the expedition's commander and Bonaparte's brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc). Some historians believe Napoleon intended to use the island as a staging point for an invasion of the United States through Louisiana (then newly regained by the French from the Spanish.).[15][16] Others believe that he was most intent on regaining control of the lucrative sugar production and trade in Saint-Domingue. Only one-third of the French troops survived to return to France, and in 1804 the new republic of Haiti declared its independence.

Savannah, Georgia: 1820

Nearly 700 people in Savannah, Georgia died from yellow fever in 1820, including two local physicians who lost their lives caring for the stricken.[17] Several other epidemics followed, including 1854[18] and 1876.[19]

New Orleans, Louisiana: 1853

The 1853 outbreak claimed 7,849 residents of New Orleans. The press and the medical profession did not alert citizens of the outbreak until the middle of July, after more than one thousand people had already died. The New Orleans business community feared that word of an epidemic would cause a quarantine to be placed on the city, and their trade would suffer. In such epidemics, steamboats frequently carried passengers and the disease upriver from New Orleans to other cities along the Mississippi River.

The epidemic was dramatized and featured in the plot of the 1938 film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis.

Yellow fever was a threat in New Orleans and south Louisiana virtually every year, during the warmest months. Among the more prominent victims were: Spanish colonial Governor Manuel Gayoso de Lemos (1799); the first and second wives (d. 1804, 1809) of territorial Governor William C. C. Claiborne and his young daughter (1804); one of New Orleans' most important early city planners Barthelemy Lafon (1820), architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and one of his sons (1820, 1817, respectively), who were in New Orleans building the city's first waterworks; Jesse Burton Harrison (1841), a young lawyer and author;[20] Confederate Brig. Gen. Young Marshall Moody (1866); architect James Gallier, Jr. (1868); and Confederate Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood and his wife and daughter (1879).[21]

Norfolk, Virginia: 1855

A ship carrying persons infected with the virus arrived in Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia in June 1855.[22] The disease spread quickly through the community, eventually killing over 3,000 people, mostly residents of Norfolk and Portsmouth. The Howard Association, a benevolent organization, was formed to help coordinate assistance in the form of funds, supplies, and medical professionals and volunteers, who poured in from many other areas, particularly the Atlantic and Gulf Coast areas of the United States.[23]

Gosport (Norfolk) Naval Hospital patient register for August 1855 & admittance of yelllow fever patients, note the high mortality

Bermuda: 1843, 1853. 1856, 1864

Bermuda suffered four yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s, both mosquito borne and via visiting ships, and in total claimed the lives of 13,356 people, including Military and civilian population. During the 1864 epidemic, a Dr. Luke Pryor Blackburn, from Halifax Nova Scotia visited the island several times, to assist the local medical community on account of his knowledge of the disease, and when he left in October 1864, he left behind some trunks of soiled clothing which were to have been sent to him in Canada. Fortunately the trunks were located and the contents destroyed.

It became evident that Dr Blackburn's visits had been financed by the Confederacy, and that a certain Union informer had been offered $60,000 to distribute Dr. Blackburn's trunks of soiled clothing to Union cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and Norfolk. Also one trunk went to New Bern, which was identified as having brought yellow fever to that city, claiming the lives of 2,000 people.

Dr. Blackburn was arrested and tried, but acquitted owing to lack of evidence, other than hearsay by witnesses, meaning that the culprit trunks could not be located, and in 1878, he went on heroically, to fight yellow fever in Kentucky where he had set up practice in Louisville, and was eventually elected governor of that state.

Texas and Louisiana: 1867

The 1867 yellow fever epidemic claimed many casualties in the southern counties of Texas, as well as in New Orleans. The deaths in Texas included Union Maj. Gen. Charles Griffin, Margaret Lea Houston (Mrs. Sam Houston), and at least two young physicians and their family members.[24]

Lower Mississippi Valley: 1878

The entire Mississippi River Valley from St. Louis south was affected, and tens of thousands fled the stricken cities of New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Memphis. An estimated 120,000 cases of yellow fever resulted in some 20,000 deaths.[25]

Memphis suffered several epidemics during the 1870s, culminating in the 1878 epidemic (called the Saffron Scourge of 1878), with more than 5,000 fatalities in the city. Some contemporary accounts said that commercial interests had prevented the rapid reporting of the outbreak of the epidemic, increasing the total number of deaths. People still did not understand how the disease developed or was transmitted, and did not know how to prevent it.[26]

The 1878 epidemic was the worst that occurred in the state of Mississippi. Sometimes known as 'Yellow Jack,' and 'Bronze John,' devastated Mississippi socially and economically. Entire families were killed, while others fled their homes for the presumed safety of other parts of the state. Quarantine regulations, passed to prevent the spread of the disease, brought trade to a stop. Some local economies never recovered. Beechland, near Vicksburg, became a ghost town because of the epidemic. By the end of the year, 3,227 people had died from the disease.[27]

The French Panama Canal Effort: 1882–1889

The French effort to build a Panama Canal was damaged by the prevalence of endemic tropical diseases in the Isthmus. Although malaria was also a serious problem for the French canal builders, the numerous yellow fever fatalities and the fear they engendered made it difficult for the French company to retain sufficient technical staff to sustain the effort. Since the mode of transmission of the disease was unknown, the French response to the disease was limited to care of the sick. The French hospitals contained many pools of stagnant water, such as basins underneath potted plants, in which mosquitoes could breed. The eventual failure, as a result of the numerous deaths, of the French company licensed to build the canal resulted in a massive financial crisis in France.[28]

See also


  1. ^ Gould EA, de Lamballerie X, Zanotto PM, Holmes EC (2003). Origins, evolution, and vector/host coadaptations within the genus Flavivirus. Advances in Virus Research. 59. pp. 277–314. doi:10.1016/S0065-3527(03)59008-X. ISBN 978-0-12-039859-1. PMID 14696332.
  2. ^ McNeill, J. R. (2010). Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914 (1st ed., p. 390). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/dp/0521459109
  3. ^ Bryant, J. E.; Holmes, E. C.; Barrett, A. D. T. (2007). "Out of Africa: A Molecular Perspective on the Introduction of Yellow Fever Virus into the Americas". PLoS Pathog. 3 (5): e75. doi:10.1371/journal.ppat.0030075. PMC 1868956. PMID 17511518.
  4. ^ Haddow (2012). "X.—The Natural History of Yellow Fever in Africa". Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Section B. 70 (3): 191–227. doi:10.1017/S0080455X00001338.
  5. ^ McNeill, J. R. (1 April 2004). "Yellow Jack and Geopolitics: Environment, Epidemics, and the Struggles for Empire in the American Tropics, 1650–1825". OAH Magazine of History. 18 (3): 9–13. doi:10.1093/maghis/18.3.9.
  6. ^ Barrett AD, Higgs S (2007). "Yellow fever: a disease that has yet to be conquered". Annu. Rev. Entomol. 52: 209–29. doi:10.1146/annurev.ento.52.110405.091454. PMID 16913829.
  7. ^ Canela Soler, J; Pallarés Fusté, MR; Abós Herràndiz, R; Nebot Adell, C; Lawrence, RS (2008). "A mortality study of the last outbreak of yellow fever in Barcelona City (Spain) in 1870". Gaceta Sanitaria / S.E.S.P.A.S. 23 (4): 295–9. doi:10.1016/j.gaceta.2008.09.008. PMID 19268397.
  8. ^ Coleman, W (1983). "Epidemiological method in the 1860s: yellow fever at Saint-Nazaire". Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 58 (2): 145–63. PMID 6375767.
  9. ^ Meers, PD (August 1986). "Yellow fever in Swansea, 1865". The Journal of Hygiene. 97 (1): 185–91. doi:10.1017/s0022172400064469. PMC 2082871. PMID 2874172.
  10. ^ The earliest mention of "yellow fever" appears in a manuscript of 1744 by Dr. John Mitchell of Virginia; copies of the manuscript were sent to Mr. Cadwallader Colden, a physician in New York, and to Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia; the manuscript was eventually printed (in large part) in 1805 and reprinted in 1814. See:
    • (John Mitchell) (1805) (Mitchell's account of the Yellow Fever in Virginia in 1741–2), The Philadelphia Medical Museum, 1 (1) : 1–20.
    • (John Mitchell) (1814) "Account of the Yellow fever which prevailed in Virginia in the years 1737, 1741, and 1742, in a letter to the late Cadwallader Colden, Esq. of New York, from the late John Mitchell, M.D.F.R.S. of Virginia," American Medical and Philosophical Register, 4 : 181–215. The term "yellow fever" appears on p. 186. On p. 188, Mitchell mentions "… the distemper was what is generally called the yellow fever in America." However, on pages 191–192, he states "… I shall consider the cause of the yellowness which is so remarkable in this distemper, as to have given it the name of the Yellow Fever."
    It should be noted, however, that Dr. Mitchell misdiagnosed the disease that he observed and treated, and that the disease was probably Weil's disease or hepatitis. See: Jarcho S (1957). "John Mitchell, Benjamin Rush, and yellow fever". Bull Hist Med. 31 (2): 132–6. PMID 13426674.
  11. ^ Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) pp 49-50
  12. ^ Geggus, David (1982). "The British Army and the Slave Revolt". History Today. 32 (7): 35–39.
  13. ^ John S. Marr, and John T. Cathey. "The 1802 Saint-Domingue yellow fever epidemic and the Louisiana Purchase." Journal of Public Health Management and Practice 19#.1 (2013): 77-82. online Archived 2016-02-04 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Philippe R. Girard (2011). The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. University of Alabama Press. pp. 179–80. ISBN 9780817317324.
  15. ^ Bruns, Roger (2000). Almost History: Close Calls, Plan B's, and Twists of Fate in American History. Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-8579-3.
  16. ^ Marr, J. S.; Cathey, J. T. (2013). "The 1802 Saint-Domingue yellow fever epidemic and the Louisiana Purchase". Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 19 (1): 77–82. doi:10.1097/PHH.0b013e318252eea8. PMID 23169407.
  17. ^ Waring, William R. (1821). Report to the City Council of Savannah on the epidemic disease of 1820. Savannah: Henry P. Russell. Retrieved 8 November 2016.
  18. ^ Lockley, Tim (2012). "'Like a clap of thunder in a clear sky': differential mortality during Savannah's yellow fever epidemic of 1854" (PDF). Social History. 37 (2): 166–186. doi:10.1080/03071022.2012.675657.
  19. ^ Denmark, Lisa L. (2006). "At the Midnight Hour": Economic Dilemmas and Harsh Realities in Post-Civil War Savannah". Georgia Historical Quarterly. 90 (3). Retrieved 8 November 2016.
  20. ^ O'Brien, Michael (2008-05-01). All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way: Critical Discourse in the Old South. ISBN 9780820332017.
  21. ^ "Died in New Orleans or La. of yellow fever". Findagrave.com. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  22. ^ Mauer HB. "Mosquito control ends fatal plague of yellow fever". etext.lib.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2007-06-11. [permanent dead link] (undated newspaper clipping).
  23. ^ Bluemink DonnaYellow Fever in Norfolk and Portsmouth , Virginia, 1855, as reported in the Daily Dispatch Richmond, Virginia, retrieved 14 March 2019 editor /transcriber http://www.usgwarchives.net/va/yellow-fever//yfinindex.html#generalindex
  24. ^ "Died in Texas yellow fever epidemics". Findagrave.com. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  25. ^ Khaled J. Bloom, The Mississippi Valley's Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, Louisiana State U. Press, 1993
  26. ^ M.C. Crosby, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History (2006)
  27. ^ Stephens Nuwer, Deanne (1999). "The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic along the Mississippi Gulf Coast". Gulf South Historical Review. 14 (2): 51–73.
  28. ^ David McCullough, The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870–1914, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978 (a comprehensive history of the building of the canal).

External links

  • "'Bronze John': Yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans" at The Times-Picayune; updated 27 September 2013, accessed 31 October 2015.
  • Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1820 historical marker in Savannah, Georgia
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