A History of The Yellow Fever in The 18th Century

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About this sample


Words: 1607 |

Pages: 3|

9 min read

Published: Sep 12, 2018

Words: 1607|Pages: 3|9 min read

Published: Sep 12, 2018

When explosive chaos and malignant disaster strike a people, the outerwear of their society shrivels away only to reveal its fleshy underbelly. The weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the community are uncovered often in the form of anxiety and panic. In late eighteenth century America, Yellow Fever caused a fear in citizens reflective of an outwardly religious and holy population fearful of God’s wrath.

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The fatal grip of Yellow Fever in 1793 appeared in the form of a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes. The humid summer climate of the swampy Philadelphia summer attracted these blood sucking insects native to areas in Africa and South America, resulting in around five thousand deaths. Yellow Fever, or “American Fever”, earned its name due to the yellowing of the eyes and skin, or jaundice, it caused in those afflicted by it. Contraction of the disease also resulted in hemorrhaging, internal bleeding, black feces, vomiting, and high fevers (Bauer 1896).

Within a few weeks of the disease’s first casualty, residents of Philadelphia fled their homes in an attempt to preserve their own lives. Most notably, founding fathers and members of congress were a part of this exodus. An xenophobic mentality gripped society and foreigners were prevented from entering Philadelphia in fear that they would spread the disease. However, Yellow Fever still spread with the intensity of a wildfire and took the lives of one-sixth of the population of Philadelphia. With such an infectious epidemic so suddenly tearing through the city, hospitals simply could not care for all of the sick and the death toll per day skyrocketed tenfold between August and October. Congress was forced to evacuate and the local government of the city crumbled under the tumultuousness and pressure of the epidemic.

The fleeing of the Philadelphians to safety is described in an account by Mulford Stough in “Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies”. A thick and asphyxiating cloud of hopelessness hung over the society of the sick causing around 17,000 citizens to flee their homes. After hordes of carriages bursting with furniture and families escaped the city, desolate and empty streets were all that were left behind. Hearses and doctor’s carriages eventually took their place. Businesses fell, newspapers stopped production, and friends avoided one another as the “city of brotherly love” lost its livelihood and identity. Stough’s account so clearly paints a picture of the Philadelphian’s brutal rejection of their city’s name; a fear of one’s neighbor dominated the Yellow Fever society as individuals turned inward. Such a rejection of the commandment “love thy neighbor as thyself” partially led to moral and religious interpretations of the disease’s grip on Americans.

Because of such a troubling plague, victims and residents began to view the disease from a moral standpoint. Their anxiety sprouted from their understanding of the Bible. Instead of a flood destroying humanity there was the Yellow Fever, and instead of Noah’s people facing the wrath of God it was the Philadelphians. They began to reflect on their moral history and their actions as a society; what could justify the taking of so many lives? In a 1793 sermon, John Mason calls the time of the plague “proof that this is a day of rebuke and of the Lord’s anger” (Mason 1793). He calls upon churchgoers to plead for the Lord’s mercy in such a troubling time, but reminds them that their sins and iniquities brought them to that cursed and plagued year. In front of the holy, it is easy to imagine his emotionally enrichened pleas and chastisements as he speaks of disease and states, “a host of destructive infects, sporting with the puny efforts of human exertion, traversed the country, and mowed down, in their march, the staff of life” (Mason 1793).

A similar judgement is prevalent in ‘an address in Christian love’ to the people of Philadelphia by Thaddeus Brown. In this writing, Brown compares the people of Philadelphia to the Egyptians cursed by plagues as a punishment from God in the Old Testament. However, instead of taking a fully negative approach, Brown speaks also of a plague that helped save David’s army in battle. Yellow Fever was a direct punishment from God, therefore only God could end the crippling disease. Brown goes on to say;

“Is not this city defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant? And therefore, hath not the curse devoured the city, and they that dwell therein are desolate, and few man left….and the borders thereof smitten with destruction?” (Brown 1798)

Such a sentiment shared by two religious figures speaks of the fears of the American people affected by the Yellow Fever. Instead of immediately wondering what physical entity served as the cause for the plague, the general population instead concluded that such death was punishment for grave sins of the society. It was deemed necessary for the Philadelphians to fall to their already weakened knees and beg for Jehovah’s mercy. Their anxiety manifested itself in having to accept what sins they committed causing such a destructive black mark on their community.

This idea was not simply present in writings from religious figures, but also by everyday citizens. A poem entitled “Fever” published in 1799 speaks of the shortcomings of society and its paving the way to punishment. The anonymous poet speaks of a time when his city bustled by the water and made a home for mirth, joy, and beauty. “Each heart with pleasures, ah, how vain! And ran in folly’s fatal road” (Citizen 1799). The happiness is described as a result of naivety and foolishness; therefore, it requires eventual reckoning. The citizen’s poem then takes an increasingly humble and holy tone as he turns to God; “Descend, O shower: breeze blow more strong and fill our hearts with wonted joy.” Described as an elegiac poem, such a haunting account details emotionally the pain of the plague, and the desire for mercy on behalf of its victims. The idea of God’s wrath as the source for the Yellow Fever is clearly one taken up by not one, but many.

However, a doctor by the name of Benjamin Rush refused this explanation for the fever and instead turned to his practice of medicine. Such a conclusion on his part was not easily accepted by his neighbors, as shown in his personal account of the disease. “Having labored nearly six years to no purpose, to persuade the citizens of Philadelphia that the yellow fever is of domestic origin, I had concluded to desist from all further attempts to produce conviction upon this subject” (Rush 1799). Rush described the origin of the Yellow Fever with a simile, comparing the foul air of the city to gunpowder, the atmosphere to sparks of fire, and heat and cold to a hand, all mixing inside the bodies of citizens for an explosive effect. He concluded that Yellow Fever is not contagious but rather it comes directly from dirtiness in the atmosphere. In his methods for preventing the disease, Rush does not mention prayer directly, but instead turns to more physical means such as the cleaning of the city and changing one’s diet.

Instead of fleeing the city when the disease grew more and more virulent, Rush risked his life and stayed in Philadelphia to care for those afflicted by Yellow Fever. Instead of looking to God as the source of the plague, he suggested that unsanitary conditions in the town, especially prevalent in sewage, rotting food, and wharf-side areas, contributed significantly to the spread of the disease. Also, he noticed a correlation between the weather in Philadelphia and the spread of the disease. As a result, he encouraged different measures to clean the city of both the plague and its filth.

Rush also headed the medicinal efforts during the height of the Fever. After realizing that simple treatments such as light blood-letting and vinegar blankets proved fruitless, he turned to more extreme measures. His final measure was “ten grains of calomel plus ten grains of jalap” (Stough 1939) mixed with blood-letting, cold air and beverages, and cold water to the body. Rush treated from one-hundred to one-hundred-and-fifty patients daily until the demand became too overwhelming and he began to deliver pamphlets detailing his treatment method to local apothecaries. These instructions eventually made their way to the Federal Gazette, though they called for obscene amounts of blood-letting that somehow did not take the lives of patients. In fact, when Rush himself grew sick from the Yellow Fever, his own method of treatment healed him.

Though the Yellow Fever epidemic ravaged Philadelphia, positive benefits came as a result of the disease. Partially due to Rush’s efforts, the sanitary conditions of the city were bettered and Philadelphia was made to be a cleaner environment. Those who owned homes were held responsible for cleaning their property through better enforced laws. The water supply of Philadelphia was more effectively filtered and no longer contaminated by waste. Furthermore, hospitals and orphanages were built and better nursing care was provided (Gum 2010).

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The time of the Yellow Fever outbreak signified a time of intense uncertainty within Philadelphian society. The fear of the people was rooted in their fear of God as they were forced to make the decision of accepting their conceived wrongdoings as the cause for such a horrendous event. Furthermore, with the studies and medicinal conclusions of Benjamin Rush, Philadelphians struggled with accepting either a secular or religious explanation for a time of destruction and death. In conclusion, the people’s reaction to Yellow Fever indicate where their anxieties and apprehensions lie. A fear of God lead to a fear of man with brother shunning brother and death keeping a hold on Americans in the late eighteenth century.

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A History of the Yellow Fever in the 18th Century. (2018, Jun 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
“A History of the Yellow Fever in the 18th Century.” GradesFixer, 03 Jun. 2018,
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