By Carl M. Cannon - August 27, 2014
Good morning. It’s Wednesday, August 27, 2014. On this date in 1900, two U.S. Army physicians performed an experiment that saved the South, prevented the deaths of thousands of Americans, and restored the reputation of an unfairly blamed Florida saloonkeeper -- all in a single experiment.
What those Army doctors did in their lab at the Columbia Barracks Hospital outside Havana, with help from a heroic Cuban colleague, was solve the terrible mystery of Yellow Fever. And it came at considerable personal cost.
More than a century later, it’s difficult to imagine the level of panic that Yellow Fever outbreaks induced in the Deep South in the late 19th century. It was a disease that spread quickly, particularly during the summer months, with a mortality rate approaching 10 percent. No one knew how it was contracted, or what it really was. Only that it came on without warning.
Take the case of the maligned saloonkeeper I mentioned above. His name was Richard D. McCormick. He left Tampa in the summer of 1888 for Jacksonville, probably before suffering from the flu-like symptoms of Yellow Fever, which had devastated Tampa in both 1887 and 1888.
McCormick checked into Jacksonville’s Mayflower Hotel, but after he was diagnosed, city officials banished him to a quarantine station out of town, disinfected his clothing, and burned the Mayflower Hotel to the ground. The health workers who dealt with him were also sent, in secret, to the quarantine facility in Sand Hills.
None of this slowed the epidemic, which ended up infecting some 5,000 Jacksonville residents (out of a population of 13,000) and claiming at least 427 lives. The reason is that poor Mr. McCormick, despite being accused by the New York Times of “having willfully endangered the whole state,” had nothing to do with spreading this frightening disease.
Hardly anyone, even top researchers within the medical profession, understood then that it is very difficult for Yellow Fever to be communicated from one human being to another.
Failing to understand this, other communities denied access to fleeing Jacksonville residents -- and did so at the point of a gun, turning away scared and often hungry people in city after city, including St. Augustine, Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C. Armed citizens in towns as far away as Chattanooga, Tenn., threatened to fire on train engineers bringing Jacksonville refugees to their town. A few cities, including Atlanta, didn’t succumb to panic, and accepted these frightened pilgrims.
In Jacksonville, most health officials and other civic leaders stayed at their posts. Among them was Edwin Martin, editor of the Jacksonville Times-Union. “I fully appreciate the dangers we incur here,” he wrote to a friend. “But I [would] rather fall at the post of duty than to live with the conscience of having deserted it.”
Weeks later, he contracted Yellow Fever and died.
Heroism was also the order of the day a dozen years later at the Columbia Barracks Hospital in Cuba. The work of Louis Pasteur had convinced U.S. government officials that infectious diseases could be isolated, and perhaps defeated, and in the last decade of the 19th century a concerted campaign was launched against Yellow Fever.
Medical research teams were dispatched to the tropics, including Brazil and Mexico but most notably Cuba. It was there that a U.S.-led team tested the theories of Italian researcher Giuseppe Sanarelli, who asserted that he had discovered the cause, a bacterium called Bacillus icteroides.
The Americans, led by English-born Army pathologist James Carroll, assistant surgeon Jesse Lazear, and U.S. Army Maj. Walter Reed could not replicate Sanarelli’s finding. Lazear, in particular, grew frustrated with their attempts to do so. This was because it was becoming apparent that Dr. Sanarelli was wrong. Yellow fever is a virus, not a bacterium.
The culprit, as Cuban researcher Carlos Juan Finlay had postulated years before, was mosquitos. To prove it -- on this date in 1900 -- Dr. Carroll allowed mosquitos to feed on him. Lazear, without telling his colleagues, did the same thing. Both of them contracted Yellow Fever. Lazear was gone by the end of September. Carroll survived, but suffered lasting heart damage. He died in 1907 and is buried, fittingly, at Arlington National Cemetery.
Carl M. Cannon