Yellow Fever

     Those who are acquainted with the life of Stephen Girard know that he became a great hero to the people of Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemics by devoting his time, labor and resources to bring aid to the afflicted and by risking his life in this endeavor.
     Why did Girard take on such a difficult and dangerous task?  Stephen Simpson, Girard’s first biographer writes: “The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 excited all the energies of his mind, and brought into full play the latent benevolence of his heart. Stephen Girard and his companions stood forward in the shape of ministering angels to provide asylum for the sick. When Girard made a proffer of his services, it was not merely to aid by his counsel or cooperate by his money, in alleviating the calamity of his fellow citizens, but was to undertake in person the most laborious and loathsome duties.”
     One might ask what caused the yellow fever epidemic that devastated Philadelphia in 1793.  Since many refugees coming into the city had been infected, it was assumed that the fever came with them from the West Indies. Girard noted that a stevedore fell sick while unloading the Polly. He was immediately purged and bled but he grew worse and died.  According to biographer Harry Emerson Wildes, Frenchmen living in Philadelphia often opened their homes to their compatriots coming from Santo Domingo who may have been ill.
     Elbert Hubbard in his book, Stephen Girard, described Girard’s courage during the epidemic:  “When pestilence settled on the city like a shadow, and death had marked the doorposts of more than half the homes in the city with the sign of silence, Girard did not absolve himself by drawing a check and sending it to a committee by mail. Not he! He asked himself, ‘What would Franklin have done under these conditions?’ And he answered the question by going to the pesthouse, doing for the stricken, the dying and the dead what the pitying Christ would have done had He been on earth.’”
     This sickness was sometimes referred to as “black death” because of the color of the vomit which contained large amounts of blood.  The name of yellow fever came from the color of the person’s skin as the sickness affected the liver, kidneys and heart. The hospital at Bush Hill was the private residence of William Hamilton who was at the time living in England and commandeered by the city for the purpose of admitting yellow fever patients.  Bush Hill was considered ideal for its spaciousness and isolation from the general population.
     The hospital committee held a meeting of people whose loved ones had been contaminated asking for volunteers to work for the patients. The committee was astonished and pleased when two wealthy men, among a handful of other volunteers in the crowd, raised their hands. The first to volunteer was Stephen Girard and the second was Peter Helm. The record shows a statement by a committee member, Matthew Carey, about Girard: “…sympathizing with the wretched situation of the sufferers at Bush Hill, he voluntarily and unexpectedly offered himself as a manager to superintend that hospital.” The conditions at the hospital, prior to Girard’s arrival, were deplorable. It was dirty, badly regulated, crowded and poorly supplied. To make matters worse, there were no experienced nurses to care for the sick; they had all fled thinking that merely being near the hospital would be fatal to them.
As acting manager, Girard took it upon himself to supervise all the matters inside the hospital. This was more dangerous. He delegated to Peter Helm the work outside the hospital, such as organizing public support and raising funds.
     Among Girard’s first tasks was to fire several dilettante doctors whom Girard considered incompetent. He also dismissed several prostitute nurses.  Biographer Henry Arey described the risks that Girard and Helm took in caring for the patients. “These men performed the most loathsome duties … and the only reward possible was a nameless grave upon the heights of Bush Hill.”
Girard selected Dr. Jean Deveze to head up a team of serious doctors to handle the flood of patients arriving at the hospital.    
     For sixty days, Girard and Helm took care of all the people in their charge. Girard gave generously of his time and financial support to the afflicted. Half the population had fled the city. The others remained in their houses. Most of the churches, the Great Coffee House, and the library were closed. Of the four newspapers, only one remained open. To ward off the sickness, people smoked tobacco; others chewed garlic, or carried bags of camphor in pockets or around their necks. No one offered to shake hands.
     At the height of the epidemic, Girard had a touch of the illness himself  but told no one except a trusted business acquaintance.  He treated himself with what he called a daily “lavage” and soon the symptoms disappeared. The disease raged on but he continued to put himself at serious risk. While many in the city with the means to escape fled the city limits for a safer environment, Girard stayed to care for the sick and dying. He wrote: “I shall accordingly be very busy for a few days and if I have the misfortune to be overcome by the fatigue of my labors I shall have the satisfaction of having performed a duty which we owe to one another.”  When the outbreak subsided, the City Hall of Philadelphia hailed him as a hero.
     From August 1st, 1793 through November 9th, 1793, in a population of twenty-five thousand, (many residents were not counted because they would not return to the city until much later) there were four thousand thirty-one burials from the fever. During the height of the yellow fever epidemic, the dead had to be disposed of quickly. How was this done?  Every evening a horse-drawn cart circulated around the city in the dark of night. The call was heard far and wide: “Bring out your Dead!” 
     Doctors were not very effective in treating this disease. They knew very little about this epidemic. Without understanding the problem, they resorted to purging and bleeding and often amputation. Doctors were often the cause of early death. It had often been said that Girard fancied himself as a sensible country doctor. He was quoted as saying: “I consider myself as competent as any (doctor) in the United States." Salt was Girard’s favorite prescription for sores and cuts. He regarded most doctors as inept who killed more people than they healed. In his opinion, doctors were only good at bone setting. Girard was one of the first to speak out against bloodletting or bleeding. He criticized Dr. Benjamin Rush for weakening his patients by bleeding them. Many of them did not survive.
     Looking back on his experience at Bush Hill, Girard is quoted as saying: “Would you believe it, my friend, that I have visited as many as fifteen sick people in a day? And what will surprise you much more, I have lost only one patient, an Irishman, who would drink a little. I do not flatter myself that I have cured one single person; but in my quality of Philadelphia physician, I have been very moderate, and that not one of my confreres has killed fewer than myself.”
     Dr. Cheesman Herrick writes: “One young man, unfortunately, had been infected with yellow fever while living in Girard’s home. Girard wrote most tenderly showing his affection for the young man, Peter Seguin, and his deep distress at the illness which had overtaken him. His letters indicated that he had watched all night by the bedside of this young man and no more tender solicitude for a member of one's own family would have been possible than Girard showed to one in need, although Seguin was a comparative stranger.
     The daily death toll from yellow fever at the height of the epidemic on October 11, 1793, was one hundred nineteen. The fever began to wane by the first of December. During the epidemic, President Washington visited Philadelphia on November 10th.  He traveled from his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia by horseback, rode through the empty streets of the city but he determined that it was too soon to take up residence again. In December, he returned to stay.
     The fever returned to Philadelphia in subsequent years. The first time it returned was in 1797, another in 1798, a third in 1802 and a fourth in 1820 in each of these new crises Stephen Girard was a leader in preventive measures and in the care of those stricken.

No comments:

Post a Comment