Monday, June 8, 2009

Yellow Fever

Yellow fever was the most deadly and feared of the ‘fevers’ to strike South Carolina. Outbreaks were almost an annual occurrence, with no fewer than 11 major epidemics between the turn of the 19th c. and the Civil War. The year Elizabeth Barnwell Gough contracted yellow fever and died an estimated one-sixth of the population of Beaufort succumbed to the disease.8

Throughout the country the fear was both so great and understanding of the disease so lacking that many stopped shaking hands and avoided passing close to houses where someone had died. Some even endeavored to remain upwind from all others they encountered. The belief that the disease was contagious resulted often in sufferers being sent to quarantine islands.

Not until the beginning of the 20th century would a mosquito, the Aedes aegypti, be identified as the carrier of the disease. Until then, medical authorities could only observe that there was a higher risk of outbreaks during the warmer months and near swamp or marsh areas. The generally accepted interpretation was that the higher incidence was due to unhealthy air.

Early treatment included bloodletting and large doses of calomel (a purgative and fungicide also known as mercurous chloride). One South Carolinian doctor practicing “mild” bloodletting took as much as 72 ounces of blood from yellow fever patients, drastically reducing the chances of recovery. Elizabeth at least may have escaped such treatment. Beaufort’s Dr. James Robert Verdier, whose residence is now known as Marshlands, is reported to have had a higher success rate than others in treating the disease, suggesting that he spurned the drastic measures of the day. But even the possibly forward thinking Verdier could do little against an epidemic of such proportions.

Elizabeth died October 10th, 1817 and is buried in St. Helena’s Churchyard.

8Joseph Waring, M.D., A Hstory of Medicine in South Carolina 1670-1825, South Carolina Medical Association, 1964, page 157

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