Living in fear of the pale faced messenger : the private and public responses to yellow fever in Philadelphia, 1793-1799

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


When yellow fever struck Philadelphia--the premier city of the New Republic-- it was the political, cultural, economic, social, and medical capital of America. When the pale faced messenger unleashed itself, with unbelievable ferocity in 1793, this charming and prosperous nerve center of the nation almost crumpled under the weight. This thesis analyses how private citizens, physicians, and governments dealt with the overwhelming problems caused by the almost annual visitation of yellow jack to the Quaker City between 1793 and 1799. While society practically disintegrated under that first ferocious onslaught, the great tradition of citizen involvement saved the city. While thousands fled, often leaving behind sick loved ones, a volunteer committee took over the administration of the city and a group of black Americans assisted, playing a key role in the recovery of the city. In subsequent epidemics, citizens continued to volunteer their services, but only in ancillary capacities. Although the real source of yellow fever--the Aedes aegypti mosquito--remained unknown for another one hundred years, physicians argued vociferously over every aspect of the disease. The medical community split into two camps. One group believed in local generation, its noncontagious nature, and a direct-heroic intervention treatment approach. The other group believed it was imported, contagious, and supported gentle-natural healing methods. Without a medical consensus, all levels of government responded to the crises by trying to address all possibilities, ultimately strengthening each one. The city councils decided to pipe in running water, while the state created a Board of Health, allocating greater powers to it after each epidemic. At the end of the decade, the national government passed Quarantine and Health Laws. Philadelphians survived the. epidemics and lived with its consequences. Both the state and federal administrations moved away. The epidemics also exacerbated anti-urbanism sentiment. Seen as centers of corruption, filth, disease, and strange immigrants, many saw the epidemics as divinely inspired--cities were evil places. The epidemics also highlighted the problems of race in Philadelphia, as African Methodists risked their lives to nurse whites, though accused of depraved behavior. The future of medicine became more specialized and hierarchical because of the epidemics, while the heroic depleting treatments of one group remained popular. They spread westward where patients were bled and purged for another half-century. Although yellow fever remained mysterious, by 1800, many physicians thought it was imported and quasi-contagious in nature. However, the infecting agent remained unknown.




Copyright (c) 2002-2022, LYRASIS. All rights reserved.