The Yellow Devastation: Philadelphia in 1793

The year was 1793 when the city of Philadelphia was struck by a yellow fever epidemic. Muddy swamps around the city served as breeding grounds for mosquitoes, the insect responsible for transferring the virus. People began experiencing symptoms by late summer, and by October of that year, at least 500 people had already died (“On this Day in History…”). Victims of yellow fever first experience pain and weakness and eventually they vomit violently, bleed uncontrollably, experience bouts of delirium, and their kidneys and liver shut down and cause them to become jaundiced (their skin turns a hue of yellow). A lot of people blamed the outbreak on the refugees that fled to Philadelphia during a yellow fever outbreak occurring in the Caribbean (“On this Day in History…”). Benjamin Rush, a local physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, thought that the epidemic was caused by the dreadfully unsanitary conditions of the city. 

“the hearse and the doctor’s [carriage] were the sole vehicles on the street.”-Lillian Rhoades, The Story of Philadelphia, 1900

It was not discovered that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes until 1881 and a vaccine was not developed until 1937 (Gum). People fled the city in fear and even noteworthy public figures like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington left in order to avoid their seemingly unavoidable demise if they were to stay (Gum). Governmental operations were temporarily set up in Germantown and doctors who stayed in the city were looking for any possible clues on how patients may be cured. Benjamin Rush was known to have used purgatives on patients like calomel and various bleeding techniques. There is very little evidence that his methods had a positive impact on his patients, but many of his colleagues thought that he was too radical and tended to do more harm than good. Rush also had a theory that African Americans were immune to yellow fever. With nurses being in high demand, Rush tried to convince African Americans in the city to serve as medical personnel, body collectors, coffin makers, and grave diggers in order to save Philadelphia (Gum). In John Edgar Wideman’s fictional story, “Fever,” the author touches on the experiences of African Americans during the yellow fever outbreak. Wideman discusses the fact that African Americans were not actually immune to the virus and were expected to leave their own sick communities and go help the white communities. Also, in his story, a black man notes the irony behind having to help people who have hated him his entire life. 


(Painting of Benjamin Rush, a physician in Philadelphia at the time of the outbreak. Photo Credit: Samuel A. Gum’s “Philadelphia Under Siege: the Yellow Fever of 1793.”)

Eventually a cold front came and eliminated the mosquito population in Philadelphia, thus ending the terror (“On this Day in History…”). By the end, the death total was about 5,000 people (“On this Day in History…”). There is some silver lining that came out of all of this though. First of all, in 1795, Pennsylvania established the Philadelphia Board of Health in order to establish and enforce stricter sanitary regulations (Finger). Also, great improvements were made towards the city’s water supply (Gum). Regular bathing became more common and water networks were created to carry clean water into the city for the residents (Gum). According to the CDC, a single dose of the yellow fever vaccine can protect a person for life and is recommended by most healthcare professionals in instances where someone is traveling to a location with a higher population of affected mosquitoes (CDC). 


(workers collected the dead and dying from their homes by the cart full. Photo Credit: Samuel A. Gum’s “Philadelphia Under Siege: the Yellow Fever of 1793.”)

“The hospitals were in a horrible condition; nurses could not be had at any price: to go into a house in which nearly every bed contained a dead body, and the floors reeked with filth, was courting death in its most dreadful form.”-Lillian Rhoades, The Story of Philadelphia, 1900. 

If That Didn’t Make You Thankful For Modern Medicine Then I Don’t Know What Will!

Until Next Time-



         “Yellow Fever Vaccine.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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