The Fever That Struck New York | Science


Word of the illness in New York City got here “from every quarter.” The place was “besieged.” Thousands fled to the countryside—so many who transportation grew to become inconceivable to search out. Others huddled inside their properties. Many died. Hospitals have been overrun, and nurses and docs have been among the many earliest to succumb. People who ventured out held a handkerchief as much as their nostril and mouth, scared of what they could breathe in. Wild claims about miracle medication and regimens tricked some into believing they might outwit the illness. They couldn’t.

It was 1795, and the yellow fever—which had burned by way of Philadelphia two years earlier, killing greater than 10 p.c of town’s inhabitants—had arrived in New York. It would return in 1798, and people two epidemics killed between 3,000 and three,500 New Yorkers. Hundreds in different components of the East Coast died in localized outbreaks, virtually all the time in city facilities.

In addition to his diary, Anderson created a form of medical textual content, additionally unpublished, which he adorned with drawings. Here a health care provider battles the personification of Death.

(Alexander Anderson Papers / New-York Historical Society Library)

A deadly, extremely contagious illness that tears by way of city populations and shuts down regular life is a phenomenon we will recognize in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. Recognizing these parallels, I revisited a startlingly detailed account of these terrifying outbreaks of greater than 200 years in the past—a younger doctor’s unpublished diary, which I got here throughout within the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. It’s a unprecedented, intently noticed chronicle of a younger man’s life and the way the illness modified it.

The Manhattan-born Alexander Anderson—or Sandy, as family and friends known as him—wrote with nice curiosity concerning the world round him, and even sketched pictures within the margins. His persona leaps from the web page. The diary fills three volumes, the primary of which he started in 1793 as a 17-year-old medical pupil at Columbia. Yellow fever would have such a profound impression on him that he would ultimately depart drugs to work as a substitute as an artisan, changing into a famend engraver. An unfinished portrait of him within the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a wide, friendly face with black hair and eyes, evoking the openness with which he appeared to strategy life.

In 1795, with the variety of yellow fever circumstances rising alarmingly, town of New York opened Bellevue Hospital, the place docs may isolate the severely unwell. It stood a number of miles upriver from the densely populated space of Lower Manhattan the place Sandy Anderson nonetheless lived along with his mother and father. Desperate for medical assist, town’s Health Committee employed him as a medical resident on the hospital. The pay was good as a result of the dangers have been so excessive; docs didn’t know what brought on the illness, nor the way it unfold.

 a beautiful moth sketch
Anderson’s diary is touchingly quick; right here, he pauses to sketch a “beautiful” moth, “which has fallen down beside me while writing.”

(Alexander Anderson Papers / New-York Historical Society Library)

In the 18th and early nineteenth centuries, many European and American medical authorities suspected yellow fever unfold by way of pestilential vapors emitted by rotting rubbish. The signs of the illness have been unmistakable. Some skilled solely reasonable fever and headache, and totally recovered, however in extreme circumstances—between 15 and 25 p.c—sufferers who had seemed to be on the mend abruptly worsened. Fever spiked, inflicting inner hemorrhaging and bleeding from the nostril, eyes and ears. Some vomited blackened blood. Liver harm led to jaundice, turning pores and skin and eyes yellow—therefore the title.

It would take scientists greater than a century to find that the virus was unfold in cities by a singular species of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti. Not till 1937 would medical researchers develop a vaccine. (Today, the illness kills round 30,000 folks every year, overwhelmingly in Africa.)

The outbreak of 1793 virtually solely affected Philadelphia, the place folks sensed it was contagious. “Acquaintances and friends avoided each other in the streets, and only signified their regard by a cold nod,” one Philadelphian famous on the time. “The old custom of shaking hands fell into such general disuse, that many were affronted at even the offer of the hand.” Similarly, some folks held a handkerchief drenched in vinegar to their nostril, to filter the noxious air.

When the illness got here to New York in 1795, residents recalled the nightmarish experiences of Philadelphians two years earlier. The “ravages made by the Fever in Philadelphia fill the minds of the inhabitants of [New York] City with terror,” Anderson’s mom, Sarah, wrote to him in September 1795.

Upward of 700 New Yorkers died in the course of the fall of 1795, earlier than chilly climate killed the mosquitoes and put an finish to the 12 months’s epidemic. Commended for his work at Bellevue, Anderson returned to Columbia to finish his medical training.

* * *

By August 1798, Sandy Anderson, now 23 and a completely licensed doctor, was reeling after a tough summer season. He and his new spouse, Nancy, had misplaced their toddler son in July, presumably from dysentery, and Nancy had gone to stick with family in Bushwick—a rural space in Brooklyn that required Anderson to take a ferry and a carriage journey of a number of miles at any time when he visited. “This morning I found myself weak, indolent, forgetful, miserable,” he wrote shortly afterward. “‘Twas with difficulty I could drag myself out to see my patients.” A few weeks later, he confessed that “I am obliged to support myself by wine and a little Opium.”

New York’s well being commissioners had believed that with cautious quarantining of occasional circumstances, town may keep away from one other full epidemic of the type it had seen three years earlier than. At one level in mid-August 1798, metropolis officers welcomed an intense three-day downpour of rain, which they believed would “cleanse” metropolis streets and “purify the air.” “Alas! our expectations in this respect, were dreadfully disappointed,” one New Yorker wrote. The storm was adopted by a warmth wave, and the water that had puddled in yards, streets and basements was an ideal breeding floor for mosquitoes.

For the primary time since 1795, Bellevue Hospital reopened. Anderson returned on August 31. Conditions have been dangerous. Twenty sufferers awaited him; 4 died by the night. He admitted 14 extra that first day. The deaths have been grotesque, and the agony of their family members insufferable to witness. “We had some difficulty in getting rid of an Irishman who wish’d to stay and nurse his sweetheart at night,” he wrote. “My spirits sank.” Meanwhile, a few of the nurses started getting sick. For a couple of days in early September, he started recording statistics within the diary—“9 Admitted, 4 Died.”

a medical record
Anderson’s file of the 238 yellow fever sufferers admitted to Bellevue between August and October 1795; 137 of them died.

(Alexander Anderson Papers / New-York Historical Society Library)

Anderson deserted that record-keeping on September 4 when a pal arrived at Bellevue to inform him that his spouse was sick with the fever; on the next day, his father got here to the hospital to say that Sandy’s brother John had fallen unwell as nicely.

For a couple of days Anderson tried to care for everybody—his spouse in Bushwick and the remainder of his relations downtown, plus dozens of Bellevue sufferers. Then, on September 8: “A heavy blow!—I saw my Brother this morning and entertain’d hopes of his recovery. In the afternoon I found him dead!” Yet he couldn’t relaxation to grieve. “I left my poor parents struggling with their fate and return’d to Belle-vue.” Before setting apart the diary that day, he paused to sketch a small coffin subsequent to the entry.

His father died on September 12. Anderson sketched one other coffin subsequent to the entry. In Bushwick, he discovered his spouse in a surprising situation: “The sight of my wife ghastly and emaciated, constantly coughing & spitting struck me with horror.” She died on September 13; he drew one other coffin. His mom, the ultimate member of his quick household, took unwell on the sixteenth and died on the twenty first; one other coffin. “I never shall look upon her like again,” he wrote.

By the time the outbreak abated, as mosquitoes died off in chilly climate, Anderson had misplaced eight members of his household and “almost all my friends.” Distraught, he give up his job at Bellevue and rejected different presents of medical work. Just a few months earlier, he appeared to have all the things earlier than him. The 1798 epidemic wiped all of it away.

When I first learn Anderson’s diary in Columbia’s uncommon books library, in 2005, I discovered myself weeping on the human loss and the sight of sketched coffins within the margins by a diarist I discovered so interesting. His expertise had simply been so relentless. I needed to depart the quiet seclusion of the library and stroll over to the nameless bustle at Broadway and 116th to gather myself.

We have grown accustomed to studying about an epidemic from statistics. Throughout Covid-19, now we have grasped at numbers, charts, percentages. Six ft aside. Number of checks per day. Spikes and curves. And nicely over two million deaths worldwide.

Anderson’s diary reminds us of those that expertise the every day lifetime of an epidemic. It was the very dailiness of his chronicle, the intimacy of his portrait of his encounter with nightmarish illness, that drew me again as one other pandemic emerged in 2020.

“I took a walk to the Burial ground where the sight of Nancy’s grave rivetted my thoughts to that amiable being, and was as good a sermon as any I have heard,” he wrote in late October 1798. Just a few days later he commented, “My acquaintances are fast flocking into town [after evacuating] and many a one greets me with a rueful countenance.”

On New Year’s Eve, he supplied “a few remarks on past year”: “A tremendous scene have I witnessed,” he wrote, “but yet I have reason to thank the great Author of my existence.” In addition to his non secular religion, he added that “I have made more use of liquor than in all my life together, and sincerely compute the preservation of my life to it.”

It took time, however Anderson moved on. He by no means returned to practising drugs. He additionally appears to have ceased conserving a diary after 1799. Instead, he grew to become an engraver acclaimed for carving pictures on blocks of wooden—abilities that ultimately made him way more well-known in his time than he was as a health care provider. He remarried, had six kids and finally professed satisfaction in having chosen an artisan’s life over a doctor’s excessive pay and social standing. When he died in 1870, at age 94, the New York Historical Society remembered Anderson as a “pioneer in [the] beautiful and useful art” of wooden engraving.

Though his engravings are undeniably charming, it’s Anderson’s account of his work within the yellow fever wards that resonates most powerfully at present. Anderson’s diary reveals the same slow-motion horror story to the one threatening us now. Embedded in these diary entries, within the ink that has turned brown after greater than 200 years, is a reminder that he sought to assist, suffered and survived. It has helped remind me that we are going to, too.

A bracing historical past of the ingenuity and worth of inoculations

By Amy Crawford

C. 1000 | Puff of Prevention

(The Historical Medical Library of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

Its origins are murky, however inoculation in opposition to smallpox most probably started in China, in the course of the Song dynasty. Prime Minister Wang Tan’s empire-wide name for a weapon in opposition to the illness was answered by a mysterious monk (or presumably a nun) who visited the PM from a retreat on Mount Emei. The monastic’s approach—blowing a powder of floor smallpox scabs into the affected person’s nostril—remained in use for hundreds of years in China.




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