it may be sometime before I write to you again on account of a contagious and mortal fever which has arisen here, and is driving us all away. It is called a yellow fever, but is like nothing known or read of by the Physicians. The week before last the deaths were about 40. the last week about 80. and this week I think they will be 200. and it goes on spreading. All persons who can find asylum elsewhere are flying from the city: this will doubtless extend it to other towns, and spread it through the country unless an early winter should stop it.
Thomas Jefferson to David Humphreys, September 11, 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
Leaders know a simple “solution” often makes matters worse.
Humphreys (1752-1818) was a Connecticut soldier, farmer, diplomat, businessman and poet/playwright. At the time of this letter, he was American minister to Portugal.
Jefferson reported on the ravages of the yellow fever. Its mortality had doubled in each of the last three weeks. Doctors had no understanding of the disease or treatment to care for its victims.
All who could leave Philadelphia were doing so. He feared they would carry the disease to others unless an early winter intervened.
It would be another 100 years before mosquitoes were identified as the infectious agents. Those insects were at their worst in coastal cities like Philadelphia in August and September. Cold weather didn’t end the disease in itself, only the insects which carried it.