… you mentioned the plan of the town which you had done me the honour to name after me, and to lay out according to an idea I had formerly expressed to you … I do believe it to be the best means of preserving the cities of America from the scourge of the yellow fever which being peculiar to our country must be derived from some peculiarity in it. that peculiarity I take to be our cloudless skies … a constant sun produces too great an accumulation of heat … ventilation is indispensably necessary. experience has taught us that in the open air of the country the yellow fever is not only not generated, but ceases to be infectious.
Thomas Jefferson to William Henry Harrison, February 27, 1803
In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about diseases that ravaged the nation in Thomas Jefferson’s time.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders design for others’ health.
Harrison (1773-1841) was Governor of the Indiana Territory and christened Jeffersonville, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, KY. He also wanted to lay out the new city on the President’s checkerboard plan, where squares of one color were developed, those of the other color left as open land.
Jefferson believed that clouded European skies prevented the urban heat build-up sunny America cities experienced every season. Perhaps urban heat contributed to unhealthy air, the cause of yellow fever. More ventilation in our cities would reduce that heat and defeat the disease. Leaving half of a city’s land undeveloped would accomplish that.
Some of Mr. Jefferson’s many ideas appeared logical and reasonable, but were impractical to implement or maintain. His plan for urban design was one of those. He was also wrong about the cause of yellow fever, but so was everyone else for the next 97 years.
Harrison became President in 1841 at age 68, the oldest until Ronald Reagan assumed the office in 1981. He died just 31 days after his inauguration and was succeeded by his Vice-President, John Tyler. Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was elected President for one term in 1888.