At your finger tips, but not contagious…yellow fever

Now you can flip through the pages of our Yellow Fever Collection from anywhere, via the New York Heritage digital collections site.

Yup! Right from where you’re sitting.

And we’re pretty excited. And proud.

It’s taken a bunch of us over two years to make this happen. And we couldn’t have done it without a generous gift from Ranlet and Beth Miner, and technical guidance from Rochester Regional Library Council.

Yellow fever was one of the two most virulent epidemic diseases in 18th and 19th century United States, the other being cholera. And our Yellow Fever Collection is one of the largest and finest anywhere in the world. It contains more than 400 works, published between 1741 and 1914, representing the development of medical thought on yellow fever over the course of a century and a half.

Yellow fever broke out in Boston in 1693; Philadelphia in 1793; Norfolk, Virginia, in 1855; and the Mississippi River Valley in 1878. The yellow fever epidemic impacted nearly all aspects of life in affected cities as residents fled, economies suffered, and thousands died.

Oil painting by Juan Manual Blanes

Painting by Juan Manuel Blanes, 1871 (Wellcome Collection)

Imagine the horror.

You step outside one morning and 1 out of 10 of your neighbors lies dead or dying.

Your world is upside down.

No one can agree on what’s causing the deaths or how to prevent them.

How will you survive in a city turned frantic with disease?

This was scene during the summer of 1793 in Philadelphia, when it was struck with the worst outbreak of yellow fever ever recorded in North America.

At the time, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital and its busiest port. Between August 1 and November 9, 1793, approximately 11,000 people contracted yellow fever. Five thousand people (10% of the city’s population) died. The epidemic created panic in the capital, causing 17,000 people, including President Washington and other members of the federal government, to flee to the countryside.

The disease gets its name from the jaundiced eyes and skin of the victims. Other symptoms include fever, headache, and “black vomit” caused by bleeding into the stomach. At the time, it was thought that yellow fever was caused by rotting vegetable matter.

The collection is a fascinating study on the confusion of 18th century physicians when confronted with a new and deadly malady; the static debates between contagionists and non-contagionists during the 19th century; early attempts to identify a bacterial agent; and the consequences of Walter Reed’s discovery of a mosquito vector.

It also provides a view into the panicked efforts of local, state, and national government to respond to yellow fever’s introduction and to check its spread; and to religious leaders’ fervent warnings of pestilence as punishment for public sins.

Rather than keep this outstanding and increasingly fragile collection locked up, why not share it with you and the rest of the world?

And that’s what we did.

Cheers!

P.S. There is no record of yellow fever ever having occurred in Rochester or in the Genesee River Valley.

This article was submitted by Susan Andersen.

 

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