October 23, 2013

What Killed Them? Yellow Fever 1854

In 1854 Dr John W Comfort, age 32, died of Yellow Fever in New Orleans leaving his wife with 3 young children. Further investigation identified a horrific epidemic in numerous southern port cities in the mid 1850s with New Orleans losing 10% of its population to this infection in 1853 with thousands more succumbing in 1854-5. The cause was not known and no cure existed.  It made me wonder why Yellow Fever had been such a scourge and why we don’t hear much about it today.

Accounts from individuals present in New Orleans depict a very grim picture of a disease-ridden city filled with the stench of dying and dead bodies in the heat of the summer. The city’s business leaders tried to keep the news quiet as they feared the entire city would be quarantined in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease upriver. Mobile, Charleston, even Philadelphia and Baltimore were infected – port cities !

It is believed that the disease originated in Africa and was introduced to Europe and the Americas by the slave trade. The first definitive report was from Barbados in 1647 and soon thereafter from the Yucatan Peninsula where the disease was called “ blood vomit”.  Patients have fever, convulsive black vomit and develop jaundice as the liver fails (hence, Yellow Fever). Decades passed before the cause was identified and a vaccine developed. 

In 1881, a Cuban physician, Carlos Finlay, proposed that Yellow Fever might be transmitted via mosquitoes, but received a cool reception from the medical community at the time.  A team led by the now famous Walter Reed, (prompted by heavy losses from the disease in the Spanish-American war) finally confirmed Finlay’s hypothesis in 1901 subsequently leading to the eradication of yellow fever first in Havana and then later during the construction of the Panama Canal.

Yellow fever is a viral disease that is endemic (present at a fairly constant rate) in Africa and South America and transmitted to humans by the bite of female mosquitoes of the Aedes species in Africa and Haemagogus species in South America. The bite of an infected female mosquito introduces virus particles under the skin where replication occurs before spreading via the lymphatic system and bloodstream to the major organs.  Symptoms of Yellow Fever start after an incubation period of 3 to 6 days and most non-vaccinated people in endemic areas will suffer a mild infection with fever, chills, backache, headache, nausea and vomiting lasting 3 to 4 days; no jaundice is seen. This acute phase is followed by a period of remission of about two days where symptoms abate and recovery is seen.  However, in about 15% of individuals in whom recovery seems apparent, a second ‘toxic’ phase occurs with recurring fever, nausea, liver injury and jaundice, kidney injury and characteristic black vomit due to stomach bleeding.  Death, due to multi-organ failure, generally follows in 7 to 10 days killing 20-30% of native Africans who enter this toxic phase, and 50-60% of native South Americans.  Surviving the infection confers life-long immunity and typically no permanent organ damage occurs.

The Yellow Fever virus was first isolated in 1927 from a diseased patient in Ghana.  This led to the development of a vaccine in 1936 by Max Theiler, a South African microbiologist working at the Rockefeller Institute in NYC, who received the Nobel Prize in 1951 for this achievement.  Immunity against all forms of the virus occurs in nearly 100% of vaccinated individuals, lasting for at least 10 years.  Since World War II, mainly because of effective vaccination programs, yellow fever is only rarely seen in travelers returning to Europe and North America.  Yellow fever has never appeared in Asia.  Today, there still is no cure or specific antiviral therapy.

Many thanks to microbiology expert, Dr CJ, for scientific content

October 10, 2013

Death Records Can Identify Unknown Spouses

Elizabeth Roosa was single and listed with her parents in the 1880 census. Little did I know that by 1900 she would be a widow.  Had I not happened upon her death record (which resulted from a search under her mother’s maiden name of Margaret Bogardus), I would not have found her. 

Interestingly her 1943 Michigan death record named her parents fully (middle names too) but HER HUSBAND WAS NOT NAMED ! She was listed as Elizabeth Frances Wastell, daughter of William and Margaret.

Further searching did identify her 1885 marriage to Englishman Joseph Wastell who died in 1894. Their marriage period falls into that “no 1890 census” gap. 

So look at death records, they can provide lots of good “Living” information.

October 3, 2013

Found a Servant? Check out the Employer

In researching the widow Elsie Bogardus Linthicum, I found her in the 1910 census in Baltimore at age 54.  She was listed as a servant in the household of the much younger Herbert S Hastings, 35.  At first I wondered if he might be a nephew. It didn’t immediately occur to me to check his occupation or to look for additional information about him – but was glad I later did.

Herbert was a native New Yorker (as was Elsie, though not from the same area) and an Episcopal priest who ran the Donaldson School for Boys in  Maryland for many years. Elsie and a number of others were servants in his household. After the death of his brother in 1933, he took in his widowed sister-in-law and her children. These little details provide some view into the environment in which Elsie was living.  I’m determined now to ALWAYS CHECK out the EMPLOYER !