The grim new numbers of the cases and deaths from COVID-19 reach us every day. As laypeople, we want to tune them out at times, but they are crucial to medical practice and public health. Certainly, we see that in history: Here is the sobering list of yellow fever deaths at Bellevue Hospital in 1795 kept by the young–and heroic–doctor Alexander Anderson, whose compelling story one can read here.
The devastating outbreak of cholera in New York City in 1832 produced this forbidding list, one that would eventually total 3,513 deaths.
Quarantine regulations and ships being refused docking privileges are also not new. Here is Governor George Clinton’s directive in 1793 restricting ships from the country’s epicenter of yellow fever, Philadelphia, from coming into the harbor anywhere closer than “Bedlow’s Island” (now called Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty):
Directives from physicians and boards of health were circulated widely, often in the form of broadsides, one-page circulars meant to be distributed or posted. The New-York Historical Society’s very rich collection of broadsides yields these examples:
On close reading, we see that that this local physician can offer little concrete advice about the alarming outbreak of yellow fever in 1798, one that would kill 2,086 of the city’s dwellers. His principal directive is to “call some able, experienced Physician” who would use different “modes” of cures (whether or not to take blood or induce vomit) for different people, a not too subtle hint that doctors did not know what caused the disease, nor whether it was contagious. It would be fully one hundred years until the medical profession confirmed that the fever was spread by mosquitoes! The factor that finally diminished the repeated outbreaks of yellow fever was thus probably less about preventive measures and more about acquired immunity in the population. Perhaps, in these days of COVID-19, we can take comfort in that. Still, we have to give these frightened and somewhat benighted commentators credit for connecting yellow fever to warm weather and stagnant waters. Meanwhile, we New Yorkers can appreciate and relate to this physician’s fear for “large and populous Cities” and for our predecessors living in “small crowded apartments.”
Just as frightening were the outbreaks of cholera worldwide that hit New York hardest not only in 1832, but in 1849, 1854, and 1866. Once again, health professionals, operating before germ theory, did not know the cause. Public service announcements were thus speculative, misleading, or simply wrongheaded, like this broadside, probably issued in 1849:
Among all this advice, the best was to “abstain from cold water,” but the operative word turns out to be not “cold,” but “water,” since the cholera bacteria was most active there. We can perhaps appreciate the fine print at the bottom that promises to make medicine and medical advice available to “the poor at all hours of the day and night.” It was indeed the immigrant poor who were both the most common victims and most often blamed for spreading the gastrointestinal disease.
Some things have not altered in these more than two centuries, such as the heroism and dedication of doctors, like Alexander Anderson, other medical professionals, first responders and essential workers in the face of pestilence. But other things have indeed changed—as we can now be grateful for informed medical advice on which we can rely and obey. Stay safe and have hope!
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections