The Yellow Fever outbreak of 1878 in Memphis, TN was extremely deadly; it killed almost everyone that got infected with the disease. It made its way from New Orleans, Louisiana, while either contaminating and/or killing several in its path. This was during a period of reconstruction.
Memphis was slowly starting to become a desired place of business and travel. Because of this, Memphis started to grow towards the over-populated side. This ended up making the effects of the disease so much worse. Doctors had no idea what the origins of the Yellow Fever were, and didn’t know if there was a way to put an end to the spreading. The Yellow Fever was starting to cause hysteria throughout Tennessee. The people had to do away with their false beliefs of diseases being some sort of punishment. They needed to be realistic to find the true cause.
As stated by W.H.O., “Yellow Fever is an acute viral haemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes.
The “yellow” in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients.” The particular mosquito that carried this disease was a female Aedes Aegypti. The infection would have come from the insect biting a now infected person. The mosquito then would bite somebody else that wasn’t previously infected, while it is carrying the Yellow Fever.
This is how the disease was originally spread. It was almost as if Memphis was just sort of brewing the perfect environment for this disease to turn into one of the most deadly outbreaks we have seen. Memphis was about to be bankrupt.
They were in debt and not making enough money to pay it off. The utter filth of the city was shocking. The city was not clean. It was an unhealthy environment, and this was the reason that previous diseases had been able to thrive here before. On top of all of this, it was hot outside, which turned out to be the perfect environment for those diseased mosquitoes and the Yellow Fever to thrive in. Memphis was a major transportation city for cargo-carrying steamboats.
Because of this, the disease was spread from Louisiana down throughout the cities along the Mississippi River. Even though Memphis had seen this disease before, this particular outbreak was something that Tennessee residents had never hoped they would have to see. They found out in the year 1900 that the virus had made its way to NOLA and made its way to the Memphis area from a diseased ship coming from West Africa. The city of Memphis began panicking immediately after the reports of Yellow Fever from New Orleans were being published, but by the time the citizens saw this, there was no time left. Soon after this, the Memphis Board of Health announced that this was an epidemic. Not long after this was declared, twenty-five thousand Memphians escaped on trains and boats during just a five day period.
Mrs. Kate Bionda, a shop owner in the city of Memphis, was the first Memphian to have her life taken by this horrendous disease. Stricken with panic, Memphis, cities nearby, and surrounding states set up quarantines in order to try and stop the disease from spreading further. The panic by nearby towns such as Jackson was so great that shot-gun quarantines began emerging among the cities to keep Memphians from coming to these towns for refuge, which would in turn increase the spread. The outbreak had frightened everyone, and those that had no means of leaving were stuck in this mess. Not only did this disease cause social unrest but also great economic losses.
Fear of infection forced shops, ports, and other businesses to close down. The Yellow Fever not only attacked physical wellbeing, but affected all other areas of society too. Memphis during this time period became one of the most important hubs in the US, all because the profitable businesses (cotton, plantations, railroad lines, slave market, etc.
) that were at work prior to the epidemic’s arrival. Furthermore, merchants in the early periods of the Yellow Fever strongly opposed quarantines because it would cause them to lose money. Local quarantines proved to do harm to both the city’s economy and its people. Also, the mass exodus did not help either because the citizens that fled were the ones paying taxes and keeping the city running.
The underfunding of the Memphis Health board would prove to be a fatal mistake as the amount of cases increased dramatically. Unfortunately the entire country was unprepared to face the magnitude of the damage this disease would provoke. Because of this, the outcomes helped bring a reform to the field of health and public wellbeing at the federal level.
Not having a state board established prior to 1878, the responsibility was laid in the hands of a slowly deteriorating city to solve these problems. The doctors had discovered that these mosquitoes thrived in warmer weather, and saw that when winter came around, little to no occurences of the Yellow Fever would be reported. Not only did this outbreak bring about reform, but it also served to unite what was a broken country at this time. After the Civil War ended in 1865 the country was still in pieces and there was no sense of unity between northerners and southerners.
During the period of the outbreak in the southern states, northerners sent much needed aid down south that included money, goods, special doctors, nurses, etc. The Yellow Fever ended up serving as glue that would help stick together a shattered country. It is estimated that that total monetary donations towards the south by the north was above 4.5 million dollars; which was a significant amount considering political parties almost never raised more than 300 thousand dollars for their campaigns.
Not only was the country being united but racial relations noticeably better during this period of time as a cause of the epidemic. Many people that fled Memphis happened to be white upperclassmen. Due to this being the case, the city’s population were now majority African-Americans. African-American majority in aided in the integration in several areas of Memphis, one of which was the police force; never before had African-Americans been allowed to serve as patrolmen in the city, but due to the low number of white people in Memphis, the police department allowed them to join. Philanthropic associations played a big role in aiding Memphis during the outbreak. One of these associations, the Howards Association, was started in New Orleans and designed with the purpose of helping those who were and had been ill. It was named after the English philanthropist John Howard.
This organization aimed at bringing aid to those who were sick by getting medical personnel into the area. The Citizens’ Relief Committee helped those that were still in the city by providing essential items such as food, soap, candles, and bedding. Many local fraternal groups also helped those that were still there, and religion also helped to provide comfort and peace to those that were sick or in a panic.
Many ministers and priests worked to help bring peace those who were dying, and closure to the family of that person. Knowing that they faced dangers of dying, these people still went along and did what they believed was right; however, in the process, many died, including thirty nuns and thirteen priests. Memphis, with its weak economy, had no way to fight the outbreak, but with such generous assistance from several people and associations, the city was kept alive. Had it not been for all the aid it received, Memphis might have never made it out alive from the epidemic.
The Yellow Fever epidemic came to an end on October 18th. A strong frost came over the city of Memphis and got rid of lots of the mosquitoes which carried the horrible disease. Shortly afterwards on October 29th, the Board of Health declared the nightmare over. The city of Memphis, in an attempt to recover, sent a message to all Memphians that fled to return. As a thank you to the citizens who suffered along with Memphis due to the disease, a meeting scheduled at the Greenlaw Opera house house took place to ensure its citizens that Memphis would do everything possible to prevent something of such magnitude to happen again. Due to the results of this outbreak in Memphis in 1878, regulations both in national and state levels were passed in order to keep future breakouts from occurring. Congress passed a national quarantine regulation which called for the US representative to provide information to doctors in the nation about possible infectious diseases in any foreign port or area that is incoming to the US. Tennessee, on the first of April 1879, redefined the policies of the State Board of Health.
They are now to order quarantine if there is a threat of an epidemic, press charges of misdemeanor on those not following through with state board requests, appropriation of three thousand dollars by the state, and had the governor elect two additional members under the circumstance that the ones who were appointed need to be in relation with commerce and transportation departments. These laws aimed at protecting public health and avoiding the reoccurence of these horrible events caused by the Yellow Fever epidemic. With straightforward guidelines, Memphis now could begin fixing up the place.
Because of the way the outbreak left things in the city, Memphis ordered a city-wide cleanup. Some of this included replacing wood sidewalks with pavement, tearing down outhouses and replacing them with modern bathrooms, creating a garbage pickup service, and inspecting food and plumbing facilities more thoroughly. The main upgrade that Memphis made sure was put in place was the putting in place of the sewer system. The citizens believed that because the city now had a way of draining contamination, the diseases such as the Yellow Fever were now eliminated.