Historical Epidemics

Historical Epidemics

Deadly diseases often struck our ancestors seemingly without warning. Learn about the four most deadly epidemics.

Epidemics of infectious diseases such as cholera, diphtheria, influenza, smallpox, typhoid, and yellow fever struck our ancestors seemingly without warning, and often only the hardy survived. Here are four of the leading epidemic diseases our American ancestors faced in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Cholera is contracted by coming in contact with food or water contaminated by infected human waste. It first appeared in the United States in 1832 as farmers, manufacturers and towns disposed of human, animal and industrial waste in waterways. Outbreaks occurred throughout the nineteenth century. In 1849, an epidemic spread up the Mississippi River, killing 3,000 in New Orleans and 4,500 in St. Louis. An 1854 outbreak in Chicago killed 3,500. In 1866, 50,000 Americans died of cholera.

The HBO miniseries John Adams by David McCullough has a memorable scene in which Abigail Adams and her children are vaccinated against smallpox. The doctor takes fluid from pustules on a sick man and puts it into a wound he’s created on the arm of each child and Abigail. Submitting to that was a brave act. Epidemics of the disease continued, with an 1837 Great Plains outbreak supposedly caused by a hand on an American Fur Co. steamboat.

Smallpox entered the British Colonies with the earliest settlers and devastated Indian populations. In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner discovered that immunity to smallpox could result from exposure to cowpox (a milder variety of the disease affecting cattle) and began experimenting with vaccinations. Newport, RI, doctor Benjamin Waterhouse was the first in the Colonies to use Jenner’s inoculation, administering it to his son July 8, 1800. In 1810, Sylvanus Fansher earned about 5 cents a person to vaccinate more than 4,000 people in the City of Providence—the first municipality in the state to support public smallpox vaccination. Successful vaccination campaigns led to the World Health Organization certifying the eradication of smallpox in 1979.

Typhoid fever
As with cholera, contaminated food and water also contributes to typhoid outbreaks. In the 19th century outbreaks were common, especially among individuals who ate raw seafood. 1891, the typhoid death rate was 174 per 100,000 people in Chicago.

Typhoid can be transmitted from a carrier to another person through food handling. The infamous Typhoid Mary, an Irish immigrant identified in 1907 as a known carrier who refused to stop working as a cook is closely associated with dozens of cases and three deaths. She died in 1938 in forced quarantine. Vaccination and antibiotics have made Typhoid rare in developed countries.

Yellow fever

Health professionals now know that mosquitoes spread yellow fever, and the malady isn’t contagious between humans—not so for earlier generations. The bug killed whole families swiftly and horribly, causing fever, chills, nausea and internal bleeding. A 1793 outbreak struck Phildelphia; New Orleans was hit in 1853; Norfolk, Va. in 1855 and Memphis in 1878. From 1882 to 1889, yellow fever defeated French efforts to build a canal in Panama. The disease causes an estimated 30,000 deaths every year in unvaccinated populations.

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