Tag Archives: Philadelphia

What to do when no one knows what to do?

The yellow fever increases. The week before last about 3. a day died. This last week about 11. a day have died; consequently from known data about 33. a day are taken, and there are about 330. patients under it. They are much scattered through the town, and it is the opinion of the physicians that there is no possibility of stopping it. They agree it is a non-descript disease [without distinctive features or characteristics], and no two agree in any one part of their process of cure.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 8, 1793

In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, which killed 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents.

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes there are no answers.
Secretary of State Jefferson reported to friend and Congressman Madison at home in Virginia on the yellow fever devastating Philadelphia. Evidence-based medical practice was in its infancy, yet all doctors, college trained or self-taught, agreed on two things:
1. There was no uniform description of the disease.
2. There was no way to stop it.

NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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So, you think you’re in control?

I have got so far, my dear Martha, on my way to Philadelphia which place I shall not reach till the day after tomorrow. I have lost one day at Georgetown by the failure of the stages, and three days by having suffered myself to be persuaded at Baltimore to cross the bay and come by this route as quicker and pleasanter. After being forced back on the bay by bad weather in a first attempt to cross it, the second brought me over after a very rough passage, too late for the stage.—So far I am well, tho’ much fatigued.
To Martha Jefferson Randolph, February 28, 1797

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some things are simply way beyond a leader’s control.
Jefferson wrote to his elder daughter about his journey to the nation’s Capitol, where he would be inaugurated as Vice-President four days later. It was not an easy trip.

From Monticello, he traveled to what would become Washington City (later Washington, D. C.), but he referred to it as Georgetown, now a region within urban D.C., northwest of the White House. The horse-drawn stages weren’t operating, and he lost one day. Then northeast to Baltimore, where he yielded to another’s advice to cross the Chesapeake Bay and then north to Philadelphia. Bad weather and rough water cost him three more days. He was still at least two days from his destination.
He wrote this letter from Chestertown, MD, east across the Chesapeake from Baltimore.

He asked Martha to relay to her husband the prices that Virginia tobacco, wheat and cider were bringing in the cities.

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How HOT was July 1, way back when?

Observations on the weather
Philadelphia 1776
July        hour                      thermom
1              9-0 AM                 81 ½
                7-   PM                 82
Weather Memorandum Book, 1776

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Analytical leaders make tiny observations over a long period of time.
Jefferson recorded thousands of everyday observations in his memorandum books. One of his subjects was weather. July 1, 1776 is the oldest surviving record of his lifelong habit of recording the temperature. Although July 1 didn’t fit the pattern, he tended to note the temperature at dawn, when he arose each day, and again around 4 PM. Those two times he considered to be the low and high temperatures for the day. The link above will take you to this book, and you can see the notations in Jefferson’s handwriting.

This page in his book covers the first 14 days of the month. July 1 had the fewest entries, just two. Most days show three or four measurements. July 8, 10, 13 & 14 have six. He would also note the weather, as when he recorded “rain” on July 13 & 14. The four temperatures for Independence Day were 6 AM – 68, 9 AM – 72 ¼, 1 PM – 76, 9 PM – 73 ½.


Weather freaks can read more about his daily observations and see photos of two of his thermometers.

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