4/3/12 - a plague devastates the nation's capital

In today's excerpt - in 1793, French-born Stephen Girard, the Philadelphia merchant who became the richest man in America, risked his own life during a catastrophic yellow fever epidemic to save the lives of hundreds of his fellow citizens:

"Stephen Girard's finest hour occurred during Philadelphia's great yellow fever epidemic in 1793. That episode, largely forgotten in American history, was one of the greatest disasters to befall any American city. The gravity of the epidemic increases when one realizes that Philadelphia was at the time the nation's tem­porary capital. Yellow fever, so named because the victim's skin turns a yellow­ish hue, is fatal to as many as half of those who contract it. If the afflicted does not successfully resist the disease, he dies a tortuous week-long death filled with bouts of high fever, chills, black vomit, and diarrhea. Were this not awful enough, the alleged cure for the malady, the one pushed by Philadelphia's leading physician, the famed Dr. Benjamin Rush, involved bloodletting and mer­cury purges. Rush, like Girard, bravely stayed in town and tried his utmost to aid the sick. Unfortunately, Rush's harsh treatment plan caused untold deaths.

"In 1793, the population of Philadelphia and its suburbs was approximately 45,000. Diseased mosquitoes slipped into the city during the summer, on the same ships that brought two thousand French-speaking West Indian refugees to the capital. ... Unfortunately, the mosquitoes also found Philadelphia a hospitable habitat. ... Before the epi­demic ended with the November frosts, some four to five thousand Philadelphians, about 10 percent of the city's population, lay yellowed and dead in pools of vomit and excrement. In a typical day just prior to the plague, an average of three Philadelphians died. On October 11, at the peak of the plague, 119 persons met their excruciatingly painful end.

"Yet the numbers do not tell the whole story. When the existence of an epi­demic was announced in mid-August, the city fell into complete panic. The 'Fever' did not discriminate: rich and poor, young and old, doctors and dock-workers were all coming down with the disease. ...

"Stephen Girard could have, indeed should have, simply left town [as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and twenty thousand other Philadelphians had done.] But instead, he chose to risk his life to save others. Though awkward physically, Girard was no coward. ... He rolled up his sleeves and plunged into the fight, the fight against the disease itself, the fight against physi­cians with quack cures, the fight for the honor of the French refugees who many blamed for the scourge, and the fight for his business and reputation. ...

"Girard knew that the afflicted desperately needed his help. When the call went out for volunteers, only thirty-seven stepped forward. Clearly, the hospital [established for yellow fever victims] at Bush Hill was no place for the faint of heart; the stench of death, vomit, and excrement filled the nostrils, overpowering even the strongest. After inspecting conditions at Bush Hill, Girard realized that such a small number of volunteers would prove insufficient unless they were efficiently organized. Therefore, at the September 16 meeting of the emergency plague committee, Girard and fel­low Philadelphian Peter Helm offered to supervise the volunteers. Girard's ac­tions, which many viewed as a death sentence, took observers aback.

"But Girard was not suicidal. He had experienced a brief bout of fever in Au­gust but brushed it off, proudly announcing that 'Frenchmen do not die as easily as Americans.' Like Hamilton, Girard, who was conversant with the prin­ciples of medicine due to his youthful experience as a sailor, shunned Dr. Rush's harsh treatments in favor of the milder approach [advocated by] Dr. Edward Stevens. Moreover, Girard did not believe that the disease was contagious, attributing the far-reaching nature of the epidemic instead to the widespread distribution of the city's filth.

"Girard and Helm quickly went to work at Bush Hill. ... It was a daunting task made all the more difficult by the fact that Girard had to convince the emergency committee that his pre­ferred choice of medical chief, a French doctor who had seen yellow fever be­fore in the West Indies, should lead the staff, not an American team influenced by Rush. Girard prevailed, so mercifully no bloodletting or mercury purges took place at Bush Hill.

"For sixty straight days Girard managed the makeshift hospital and cared for the ever-growing number of sick. When overcrowding became a problem, tem­porary shelters sprang up around the mansion house. A contemporary observer noted that Girard had to perform 'many disgusting offices of kindness for [the patients], which nothing could render tolerable, but the exalted motives that im­pelled him to this heroic conduct.' In the words of one historian, 'for the dy­ing, Girard acted as confessor and chaplain, comforter and attorney.' "


Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen


Financial Founding Fathers




Copyright 2006 by Robert E. Wright and David J. Cowen


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