The account you give of the yellow fever, is entirely agreeable to what we then knew of it … facts appear to have established that it is originated here by a local atmosphere, which is never generated but in the lower, closer & dirtier parts of our large cities, in the neighborhood of the water: and that, to catch the disease, you must enter the local atmosphere. persons having taken the disease in the infected quarter, & going into the country, are nursed & buried by their friends, without an example of communicating it.
From Thomas Jefferson to Constantin François Chasseboeuf Volney, February 8, 1805
In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about diseases that ravaged the nation in Thomas Jefferson’s time.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders heed empirical evidence.
Volney (1757-1820) was a French philosopher, author and politician. He met Jefferson during the latter’s tenure as Ambassador to France. Volney visited America during the 1790s. Jefferson sponsored Volney’s membership in the American Philosophical Society, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific organization. Both shared similar views on government and religion.
In a November 1803 letter to Jefferson, Volney said he nearly died in September from a “cruel illness … the fever…” He was heeding his doctor’s advice to relocate for the winter. Neither this letter nor his previous ones to Jefferson made specific reference to the “yellow fever,” but the President assumed it was the same malady in both countries.
Jefferson continued his theme that evidence pointed to the disease occurring only in dirty, densely populated, waterfront areas. That made it endemic to those areas. Afflicted people taken inland, whether they lived or died, did not give the fever to their care-givers. That meant it was not contagious.