Wagner: How we (finally) quelled an American scourge | Chroniclers


In October, in just 90 days, yellow fever killed more than 3,200 people in Norfolk and Portsmouth, around one in three people left behind. The young progressive mayor has passed away, along with the postmaster, the chief of police, the founder of a booming railroad, bankers, a journalist, ministers, doctors and nurses of others. who rushed to other towns to help. An entire family perished. You can drive five hours west to Elmwood Cemetery, for physical proof. Or you can go to the Jewish cemetery, the Catholic cemetery, two cemeteries across the river in Portsmouth, or stop by the mass grave in the upscale part of the city, west of Ghent.

We seem to have forgotten, or we take for granted here in 2021, that there is one essential key to having a civilization, country, state or city: survival. In Virginia, we often look back to Jamestown for this, but the point is that towns like Norfolk and Portsmouth fought for their existence until the 1800s.

Deaths from typhoid fever, cholera and especially yellow fever plagued American port cities for at least 200 years. It is certainly a setback for a city’s economy when more than one in three inhabitants, as well as most of its executives and business leaders, all die within three months.

Scientific confirmation that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever did not come until 46 years after that summer of 1855. Since they did not know what carried yellow fever, there was no vaccine. In fact, even after a Virginia doctor named Walter Reed – a long story, but history credits it – scientifically identified the mosquito as the carrier of yellow fever, it took 36 years for scientists to develop an effective vaccine. . Thirty six years.

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