A lot of breaking news has gone by since my last blog. There are raging debates over policing, black live matter, covid-19 response, statuary, and the President's fitness to hold his office. I will state for the record that blue privilege needs to be ended, Hell yes-black lives matter. Our government has been criminally negligent in its covid-19 response, and the President both incompetent and corrupt in quantities and qualities never seen before in that office. That sets me free to bloviate a little longer on statuary. Statues have history but very few indeed are history. It makes sense to be constantly reassessing what we choose to commemorate in our public places. In private places there is not much any of us can do to legally make changes. Statues of unsavory characters from our past can effectively be displayed as long as they are accompanying interpretive materials putting the statue or commemorative display in context (warts and all). Robert E Lee is the most controversial, mainly because the Daughters of the Confederacy and other groups needed him to be heroic to promulgate the lost cause mythology. A frank assessment shows him as an important leader of armies in rebellion against the nation. He had taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic but chose to violate that oath because his state seceded. I don't see that as an exit allowed under his oath, but maybe he had his fingers crossed. Other Virginians, such as General George Thomas, stuck with their oath, but don't get anywhere near the statuary of the marble man-Lee. Basically if there were to be a statue to Lee left on public lands it fmakes sense to point out that touchy pathbreaking episode and others (such as his harsh treatment of slaves, refusing to grant timely freedom to his inherited slaves, and the fact that he likely would have thought statues of him popping up like dandelions was horrifying.)
Moving on to our topic. With all the war news created during the War of the Rebellion, we often forget that a variety of epidemics raged in various parts of our troubled nation during the war years. Below is an excerpt of an article printed in the September 14, 1865, issue of the National Republican encapsulating a report by the Yellow Fever Quarantine Commissioners. At that date the war was sputtering to its conclusion and many soldiers were mustered out and returned home. Though the paper is a Washington D.C. publication it appears the commission is headquartered in New York City. Such commissions were common in active ports which required quarantining of infected ships. The Commission makes recommendations for building warehouses to keep cargo from definitely infected vessels versus those arriving from ports known to have infections. New York had suffered Yellow Fever outbreaks in 1805, 1822, 1856, and 1863. New York harbor contained a hospital ship, upon which those exposed to the fever were kept for five to seven days before being allowed into the city.
Yellow Fever was a great mystery to the medical profession in the 1860s. It killed roughly between three to five percent of those infected. Those who developed jaundice (usually those past childhood) died at a twenty to fifty percent rate. Those who developed severe cases died at a rate of higher than fifty percent. Its origin in Africa had been correctly identified, but the doctors of the period did not recognize that it was spread by the mosquito Aedes aegyti. It was not recognized at that time that the fever made its way to become a common pestilence of North American ports because it likely was spread by ships involved in the slave trade. Slaving was not the only transmission vector but it is of interest that the ports involved in the trade experienced repeated deadly outbreaks. Once the host mosquito was spread around the tropics it hung on fiercely. The last major outbreak of the Yellow Fever in the United States was in New Orleans in 1905. There was no cure for the fever and the best doctors could do is relieve the symptoms. A preventative vaccine was unknown until the 1950s.
"It's not what we don't know that hurts us. It's what we know that ain't so."- Will Rogers
The 1864 commission report discusses the possible cause of the disease as fungus. Indeed ships that were in tropical environments were hospitable habitats for a wide variety of fungi. The discussion of disinfecting ships carrying the disease evidences the confusion of the doctors as to why a proven fungicide such as chlorine was infective. Failing to recognize that the chlorine failure was because the cause was not a fungus, the commission falls back upon the use of fresh air and sunlight. If this sounds suspiciously like current events that is because medical science was groping in the dark, hopeful that rounding up "the usual suspects" would work. A medical community, convinced that the agent of transmission was fungus growing in the ships was doomed to hunt about for ineffective ways to fight the spread of the disease.
Yellow fever plagued the Americas since the middle1600s. The actual cause of the breakouts of the fever was worked out by military doctors in 1900. Before that time a variety of culprits were suggested for the cause including bacteria (1897). After 1900, Yellow Fever communities found it easier to control by implementing massive mosquito control efforts.
History is repeating itself every day during our current pandemic. Keep in mind that, though our science has improved incredibly upon the witchery of fresh air and sunlight combined with chlorine derivatives, we still reach for the usual suspects. We may not be groping in the dark but we still find ourselves quarantined to wait and see what comes next within a dimly lit room. Keep safe my friends.