University Archives and Special Collections
Home Policies & Forms Collections Exhibits Genealogy Resources Research Sources
Highlights of the University Archives & Special Collections

The Death of "Yellow Jack"

"It is too distressing and affecting a scene, for a person young in life to bear."

(click to enlarge)
Print. "Conquerors of Yellow Fever," by Dean Cornwell, N.A. Courtesy: Wyeth Labs.
 
(click to enlarge)
Books, pamphlets. Yellow fever accounts published 1793 and afterward.
 
(click to enlarge)
Photograph. Carlos Finlay, ca. 1855, unnamed Philadelphia studio.

So wrote 23-year-old law clerk, Isaac Heston, of the epidemic yellow fever, which ravaged his hometown of Philadelphia. He himself died ten days after penning this in 1793. By the time the flu abated, Heston was one of almost 5,000 citizens, one out of every ten, to die. Yellow fever (an acute infectious disease characterized by jaundice, fever, vomiting and hemorrhaging) was always a reoccurring element in American history. Its most virulent visit began, according to Heston,

"...in late July, 1793, in the alleys and dim, crowded houses along Water Street, near the docks. Panic ensued and those that could afford to leave the city sought refuge in outlying communities. Many lawyers remained busily drafting wills an settling legal affairs."
(click to enlarge)
Print. "The Conquest of Yellow Fever," by Robert Thom, 1963. Courtesy: Parke, Davis & Co.

Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, was America’s greatest city and most populous. It boasted the tallest building in North America (Christ Church still standing at Second near Market Street). "The Quaker City" was a major port, receiving goods, passengers and diseases from Europe, Africa, South America and West Indies. The city was also proud to have one of the young country’s foremost physicians and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, as its leading citizen. Philadelphia was also home to the Department of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, America’s first med school (1765). Although the state and federal governments vacated the city (including such notables as President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson), Mayor Matthew Clarkson called on Philadelphians in a lesson in volunteerism. Basic services were needed and fewer than two dozens residents responded to the monumental tasks of burying the dead, nursing the sick and caring for hundreds of orphans. Mayor Clarkson took action to renovate the decrepit hospital at the Bush Hill estate (located in the city outskirts at 18th and Spring Garden Streets), established street sanitization procedures and enacted quarantine rules in an effort to contain what was believed to be the contagious aspects of yellow fever.

Eventually (1799), the port would receive its quarantine station at the Lazaretto on Tinicum Island, Delaware County. (This historic structure, America’s first site for immigration control and public health, was only recently saved from demolition.) The famous Fairmount Water Works (which sustained an interior fire in January 2002) was constructed by the nascent Bureau of Health in 1820 as a result of the devastation from yellow fever outbreaks and the need for public hygiene.

A substantial number of the Mayor’s committee was composed of free blacks such as Richard Allen, William Gray and Absalom Jones. After the epidemic passed, a number of best-selling pamphlets were published documenting the scourge. One of these, A short account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia, by Matthew Carey, went into four editions and recounted not only the collapse of the city's institutions and commerce but also discovered the sense of civic pride in the volunteers or "band of brothers" who labored against death.

(click to enlarge)
Medicine case and bottles. Ca. 1800-1830. Typical wooden case in the age prior to doctor's bags and pharmaceutical vials.

Jones and Allen were angered by Carey’s neglect in recording the deeds of the African American community in that "band of brothers" and were moved to correct history in their pamphlet, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia. Because of their bravery and commitment, this episode won for the black community a new respect from the city fathers and many white citizens who were witnesses to their humanitarian service.

Carlos Juan Finlay was born December 3, 1833 in what is now Camaguey, Cuba. His parents (his father was a Scottish physician and his mother was French) moved shortly thereafter to Havana near their coffee plantation. Schooled in Europe and England, he returned in 1851 to Cuba at the age of 18 where he convalesced from typhoid fever. Enrolled at Jefferson Medical College two years later, he graduated in 1855 as a 22-year-old physician, who wrote his senior thesis on "Cynanche trachealis." He left Philadelphia inspired by his preceptor and JMC faculty member, John K. Mitchell, to pursue science with modern rigor. Dr. Finlay also worked with Dr. Mitchell’s famous son, S. Weir Mitchell (JMC 1850). As a practitioner in Cuba, he observed tropical diseases and wrote copiously on subjects from beriberi to yellow fever.

Throughout his publications in epidemiology, he associated the presence of mosquitoes and the spread of yellow fever. In 1881 he formally presented his theory, supported by years of documentation, and even identified the mosquito vector by name, Aedes aegypti. But it would take the Spanish American War and the U.S. Commission to Study Yellow Fever to put Dr. Finlay’s data to the test by actual inoculation by infected mosquitoes of Army personnel in 1900. Overnight, Dr. Finlay and his colleagues, Drs. Walter Reed and William Gorgas became famous for identifying the transmitter of the disease and acting to eradicate it. Forty years later, a yellow fever vaccine would be developed, but by then, the disease had been contained through programs designed to destroy the insect, its eggs and habitat. The event has since become a milestone in medicine and celebrated in medical art. In 1949 images of Dr. Finlay and Aedes aegypti shared a pair of commemorative stamps put out by the Republic of Panama celebrating the countless lives saved during the building of the great Panama Canal.



Jefferson home

The University Archives and Special Collections is a unit of
Scott Memorial Library, Thomas Jefferson University
1020 Walnut Street · Philadelphia, PA 19107
215-503-AISR / 215-503-2477

Ask an Archivist
Please send comments about this page to Michael Angelo (Michael.Angelo@jefferson.edu).
Disclaimer & privacy policy
Copyright ©, Thomas Jefferson University
All rights reserved