How the 2019 Coronavirus mimics Philadelphia’s 1793 Plague

Michael Eli Dokosi March 09, 2020
People infected with yellow fever in the 1793 Philadelphia Plague via

Coronavirus has been recorded in at least 56 countries, with more than 100,000 diagnosis and at least 3,015 deaths in China and 267 fatalities in other parts of the globe.

As the disease, also known as COVID-19 spreads, nations and companies have had to take a re-look at their annual projections similar to Philadelphia’s 1793 Plague.

Companies are readjusting their annual profit expectations while economists lower their forecasts for global growth and human interaction limited to avoid contracting or spreading the virus.

The pandemic though is sadly not the first to afflict the human race.

In 1793, a plague afflicted Philadelphia which also hampered business and even human movement.

The outbreak was so ravaging, an estimated 20,000 people left the city through September, including United States President George Washington and his cabinet.

With a population of approximately 55,000 in 1793, Philadelphia was America’s largest city, its capital and its busiest port. The city was also the site of the most fearsome epidemic to strike the young nation.

In the spring of 1793, French colonial refugees, some with slaves, arrived from Cap François, Saint-Domingue now Haiti. About 2,000 immigrants fleeing the slave revolution in the North of the Island crowded the port of Philadelphia, where the first yellow fever epidemic in 30 years began in the city in August.

The first two people to die of yellow fever in early August in Philadelphia were recent immigrants, one from Ireland and the other from Saint-Domingue. After two weeks and an increasing number of fever cases, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a doctor’s apprentice during the city’s 1762 yellow fever epidemic and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, saw the pattern and recognized that yellow fever had returned.

Dr. Rush alerted his colleagues and the government that the city faced an epidemic with the principal victims being neither young nor elderly folks but the workers operating at the docks.

Believing that the refugees from Saint-Domingue were carrying the disease, the city imposed a 2-3 week quarantine on immigrants and their goods. Some neighboring towns had patrols on the roads to prevent entry by refugees mimicking the Wuhan clampdown.

The major ports of Baltimore and New York prevented refugees from entering and quarantined them and their goods from Philadelphia for weeks. The death of Dr. Hutchinson from yellow fever on September 7 started a panic throughout the city of Philadelphia and people began to flee. Between August 1 and September 7, 456 people died in the city.

On September 8, 42 deaths were reported. The worst seven-day period was between October 7-13 when 711 deaths were reported. The daily death toll remained above 30 until October 26.

As the rich fled, the poor were left behind. The guardians of the poor took over Bush Hill, a 150-acre estate outside the city, whose owner William Hamilton was in England for an extended stay.

As with COVID-19 cases where the initial infected people were non Africans, rumor spread that Africans were immune to the virus, Dr. John Lining also observed in the 1742 yellow fever epidemic in Charleston, South Carolina, that African slaves appeared to be affected at rates lower than whites; believing Africans had a natural immunity.

Dr. Rush also suggested that the city’s people of color had immunity and solicited them to attend to the sick. Rather than being immune, many of the African slaves in Charleston in 1742 could have gained immunity before being transported from Africa, having been exposed to yellow fever in a mild case. People who survived one attack gained immunity. In the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, blacks died at the same rate as whites.

In late October, after temperatures cooled and the mosquitoes died off, a newspaper reported that “the malignant fever has very considerably abated.” Stores began to reopen on October 25, many families returned, and the wharves were “once more enlivened” as a London-based ship arrived with goods. The Mayor’s Committee advised people outside the city to wait another week or 10 days before returning.

Directions were also published for cleansing houses while a white flag was hoisted over Bush Hill with the inscription “No More Sick Persons Here.”

Finally on November 13, stagecoaches resumed service to the north and south. An Official register of deaths listed 4,044 people as dying between August 1 and November 9, 1793, making the epidemic in the city of Philadelphia one of the most severe in United States’ history.

Philadelphia it has to be established was home to United States founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: March 9, 2020


Must Read

Connect with us

Join our Mailing List to Receive Updates