Yellow fever epidemics occurred frequently in Pensacola throughout the 19th century. The last epidemic occurred in 1905.
Pensacola physicians who risked and sometimes lost their lives treating yellow fever could do little more than diagnose the disease. There was no effective treatment. Even today, treatment is symptomatic and supportive only. The first vaccine was not developed until 1937.
History of treatment
Prior to the early 1900s, it was not generally understood that yellow fever is transmitted not by person-to-person contact, but by mosquitoes. The first scientific evidence that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes was obtained by Cuban physician and scientist Carlos Finlay in 1881, but his research was not generally accepted until a team lead by Walter Reed reached the same conclusion in 1901.
In 1884, after a particularly harsh epidemic two years prior, the Board of Health instituted a policy of refusing harbor entry to suspect vessels. The first vessel excluded was the bark Kedron of Rio de Janeiro. The Kedron then sailed for Quebec and lost her captain en route from yellow fever.
After the epidemic of 1905, the swamps around Pensacola were drained, resulting in the eradication of yellow fever in the area.
Epidemics by year
Yellow fever epidemics struck Pensacola in the following years: (This list may not be complete.)
In the epidemic of 1822, most residents of the Pensacola area either fled or died. According to one estimate, the population was reduced from about 4000 before the epidemic to about 1400 after; a different estimate appears below. Commerce and industry were almost entirely destroyed. The first legislature of the Territory of Pensacola met in Pensacola in 1822. Because of the epidemic, the legislative sessions were moved to a farm 15 miles out of town.
Here are a few excerpts from eyewitness accounts of the epidemic:
"A terrible epidemic has visited Pensacola... About a hundred and fifty have, in twenty days, been consigned to the tomb, and as many as eighteen have fallen in a single day. Never, perhaps, was a fever more universally fatal, utterly defying the aid of medicine; no instance of a recovery after an attack, has occurred."
"It is impossible to give you an idea of the extent of the calamity which has befallen Pensacola; out of a population of fourteen hundred, which it was said to contain when we arrived, short of four hundred now remain; the rest have either died or made their escape. We are the only American family that remains alive in the place, and there are but very few other Americans here... All our authorities have either died or deserted... You may cast your eyes for hours every day round and not see an individual moving, save the hardened carman with his heavy loaded hearse."
In 1835, yellow fever spread to the Navy Yard and throughout ships in the harbor.
This epidemic was introduced by a patient from New Orleans. He and several physicians attending him all died. Members of the family where he was sick also contracted the disease.
The epidemic of 1867 struck despite efforts to quarantine ships upon their arrival in Pensacola. Crewmen arriving on ships from locations where yellow fever was active, such as Jamaica and New Orleans, fell ill after their ships had been released from quarantine. The disease spread to Pensacola, Warrington, and Woolsey. Most of the marines at the Navy Yard came down with the disease. Most of the healthy people in Pensacola fled the city. John Brackett estimates that between 150 and 200 persons died of yellow fever in the Pensacola area; many more fell ill but recovered.
The 1874 epidemic killed 354 of Pensacola's 1400 residents. In the mistaken belief that the disease was usually transmitted by day, victims were buried in the cemetery at night by the light of lanterns. Actually, the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits yellow fever generally bites at night.
Commodore Melanchton B. Woolsey, commandant of the Navy Yard, correctly believed that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, some years before this was demonstrated scientifically. "He erroneously believed, as others did also, that disease carrying mosquitoes could only fly a few feet high. So Woolsey moved into the third-story cupola of Quarters A. He got his meals, rum (which he claimed was a 'tonic' against the fever) and tobacco for his pipe by lowering a basket on a rope from one of the cupola's windows. One day his servant forgot the rum! Woolsey died soon thereafter." Shortly before the epidemic began, Woolsey had received orders to transfer to a northern post, but he had chosen to remain on duty in Pensacola..
On September 30, 1882, before the epidemic had concluded, the New York Times reported 783 cases of yellow fever in Pensacola, including 78 deaths. The New York Times also reported that "the state of Alabama has quarantined against Pensacola. Unless some arrangement can be made to avert the disaster, all trains will be withdrawn, and the city will be cut off from mails and supplies."
In a contemporaneous account of the 1882 epidemic, R. B. S. Hargis, a physician who treated numerous yellow fever cases in Pensacola, reported that at the Pensacola Navy yard and in the adjacent villages of Warrington and Woolsey, with a total population of between 1300 and 1400, there were 167 cases of yellow fever and 33 deaths.
Although some medical authorities at the time correctly realized that yellow fever is not infectious from the sick the the healthy, Dr. Hargis disagreed with this conclusion, based on his personal experience. "My practice taught me... that on leaving an infected ship I carried the disease in a severe form to my wife, who was far from the infected locality, and who communicated it to my youngest child."
Dr. Hargis had a vague idea that something in the air expedited the transmission of the disease, but did not state that that mosquitoes were involved: "Certain unknown conditions of the atmosphere obtain at times, which favor the reproduction and dissemination of the morbific principle, and when this occurs, no means of disinfection or of staying its progress known to sanitarians are adequate to destroy it, or even mitigate or lessen its potency."
Dr. Hargis reported "exceedingly stringent precautions around our city to prevent refugees communicating the disease."
|The Spanish vessel Salita was responsible for a terrible epidemic in 1882, bringing the disease from Havana. There were 2,200 cases, 1,200 being Negroes. Only two of the latter died; but there were approximately 250 fatalities among the whites. Dr. James S. Herron was at the head of the hospital and gave devoted service to the ill. Dr. Robert B. S. Hargis, President of the County Board of Health, was an able assistant, as was the secretary, Dr. Whitney.|
—Occie Clubbs, writing in the Florida Historical Quarterly.
The epidemic of 1905 was quickly brought under control by vigorously eradicating mosquitoes and by isolating victims under mosquito netting to prevent transmission of the virus from victims to mosquitoes.
- Bigler, William J. "Florida Past: Roots of Public Health in Escambia County"
- Choppin, Samuel. "History of the The Importation of Yellow Fever Into the United States From, 1693 to 1878." Public Health Reports and Papers, Volume IV: 190-206, American Public Health Association. Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1880.
- Wilkerson, Lyn. ["Roads Less Traveled: Exploring America's Past on its Back Roads", http://books.google.com/books?id=gg_LxZfWx0MC], p.417. iUniverse, 2000
- "1822 Yellow Fever" http://genealogytrails.com/fla/escambia/epidemic_1822.html
- Brackett, John Matthew. "'The Naples of America,' Pensacola during the Civil War and Reconstruction". Master of Arts thesis, Florida State University
- [Zemenick, D.J. http://barrierislandgirl.blogspot.com/2006/10/st-michaels-cemetery-history-of.html "St. Michael's Cemetery - History of Pensacola"]
- Straight, William.["Yellow Fever at Miami: The Epidemic of 1899" http://digitalcollections.fiu.edu/tequesta/files/1995/95_1_02.pdf]
- "Military.com Installation Guide"
- "Virtual American Biographies"
- "The Yellow Fever Scourge; Rapid Spread of the Disease in Pensacola and Need of Aid" The New York Times, September 30, 1882
- "Yellow Fever's Victims; A Scourge in the South -- A Quarantine Against Pensacola" The New York Times, September 2, 1882
- Hargis, R.B.S. "The Pensacola Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1882"