Originally created 07/06/99

Yellow fever plagued Augusta



The Garden City was prosperous and healthy in the 1820s and 1830s -- until Augustans faced the first of two deadly yellow fever epidemics.

The city recently had built a courthouse and City Hospital on Greene Street. In 1828, at the urging of Dr. Milton Antony, the Georgia Legislature established the state's first medical school. The railroad connecting Charleston, S.C., to Augusta was completed.

And Dr. L. Alexander Dugas wrote in an 1837 study that the death rate among whites ages 10-20 was about one in 90 and for white children younger than 5 was about one in 12. This was considered healthy.

But Augusta's healthy reputation soon would be spoiled by yellow fever, which had been feared for centuries in tropical and port cities throughout the Americas.

As the spring of 1839 brought the usual hot weather and mosquitoes, city officials decided to get rid of a massive pile of garbage that had accumulated at the end of a wharf in the Savannah River. They decided to spread it out downstream. And a few people in the Augusta area got sick, historian Salem Dutcher wrote in A Memorial History of Augusta, first published in 1890.

"On June 8, 1839, a number of members of a family residing on the river near Lincoln Street were attacked by a virulent disease taken at the time to be a remittent fever," the historian wrote. "On the 5th of July, a laborer who had been working in the same vicinity was attacked in the same way; then a little boy who had been playing in the locality was taken with like symptoms and died in a few days."

The disease spread. Victims' faces, tongues and eyes became flushed and suffused. They suffered from fever and black vomit that looked like coffee grounds. Some victims' skin and eyes turned yellow before they died. Ann Allan, a 36-year-old Charleston native, was the first to die, cemetery records show.

Forty cases were documented by Aug. 19, 1839, when the mayor called Augusta's physicians into consultation. Of 38 deaths reported in Augusta for the month, 27 were attributed to the strange illness.

Yellow fever, with a reach in the Americas that stretched from Boston to Barbados, had found its way inland to Augusta.

No one knew where it came from or how it had spread. The lots in the part of the city where it started were cleaned to city specifications. It couldn't have been an accumulation of dirty rainwater in the neighborhood because it was a dry season.

"The nurses escaped," wrote Dutcher, "though they were exposed to the exhalations from the diseased body of the patient, who often expired in the most frightful agonies, with black vomit, hemorrhage, and all the evidences of extreme putridity."

Then a man in prison contracted the disease and died, even though he hadn't been exposed to anyone with yellow fever.

As more people became ill, some fled the city for higher elevations of the Sand Hills area of upland South Carolina.

The Augusta Chronicle, which published three editions a week, dropped to one because it didn't have enough people to run the newspaper. The Sept. 12, 1839, edition included this note to readers: "Our workmen have left their posts on account of the prevailing epidemic, and we have now barely force enough to go to press with our weekly paper."

The newspaper, describing the new plague as "a thunderbolt in a cloudless sky," published daily death tolls reported by physicians and assurances that the cause of the disease had been removed -- even though no one knew what the cause was.

In September, 144 of 146 deaths reported were from yellow fever, according to research by Dr. Russell Moores, professor of hematology and oncology at Medical College of Georgia and a historian who has researched the outbreak. The other two deaths reported that month were from childbirth and old age, he said. Yellow fever accounted for all 52 October deaths. The fever spread until Augusta's seasonal killing frost Nov. 8.

November brought only 16 recorded yellow fever deaths and December only one. The Nov. 11 edition of The Chronicle listed the names of 205 white victims of yellow fever, plus 35 blacks. The number of blacks likely was undercounted, Dr. Moores said.

The Augusta area's population in 1837 was estimated at 7,500. About 2,500 were infected with yellow fever in 1839, Dr. Moores said.

"With a 33 percent infection rate, that's a pretty impressive epidemic," Dr. Moores said recently.

In November 1839, Mayor Alfred Cumming commissioned an investigation into the fever -- an assignment MCG's faculty accepted. One of the college's own had died in the outbreak: Dr. Antony, chief founder of the school, succumbed to the disease while treating its victims.

Drs. F.M. Robertson, I.P. Garvin and Paul F. Eve presented their report Dec. 10. They found that the fever wasn't contagious. Once those infected were moved from where most of the cases occurred, their caregivers didn't catch the fever. But caregivers who nursed the afflicted in the hot zone near the Savannah River came down with the disease.

Doctors traced the fever to the city garbage pile in the river, noting that the outbreak coincided with removal of the garbage.

Though doctors were correct that the fever didn't spread directly from person to person, they were dead wrong on its source. It would take another Augusta outbreak and a war with Spain before yellow fever's true nature would be revealed.

Todd Bauer can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.