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Yellow fever outbreak of 1876 serves as stark reminder

By LARRY HOBBS | The Brunswick News, Ga. | Published: March 14, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Doctors had little in the way of defense against this mysterious disease. Its very name could ignite panic throughout the populace. Fears of the disease's spread could bring community affairs to a standstill.

Sound familiar?

Time will tell whether our reaction to this current situation proves to be excessive hysteria or a prudent abundance of caution. But the stakes were dire and deadly when a yellow fever epidemic swept through Brunswick, Ga. back in 1876.

More than 100 folks died in the city by the sea. The yellow fever death toll topped 1,000 farther up the coast in heavily-populated Savannah.

"The Savannah epidemic was the worst of its kind in coastal Georgia history before or since," said Buddy Sullivan, a Darien native, author and noted coastal Georgia historian.

The ravages of yellow fever were nothing new to Southern seaport cities by this time. But the scientific and medical communities were advancing in baby steps. They were getting closer. The prevailing expert opinion suspected yellow fever and other illnesses such as malaria derived from marshes, swamps and other soggy grounds. Some even recommended draining such areas, which was on the right track. But they all were convinced the infection resulted from breathing the "foul air" emitted from wetlands.

More than two decades would pass before they confirmed it was those darn skeeters all along. "Not a thought was given to the presence of mosquitos," writes Leslie Faulkenberry, a knowledgeable Glynn County historian. "Insects were regarded as omnipresent and annoying, but not unhealthy in themselves. They were there when sickness was not an issue, so they were seen as an unrelated constant."

With no solution in sight, the deadly problem of yellow fever was even more dreaded. The disease earned its name from the jaundice that victims suffered as a result of internal organ failure, which followed spiking fever and pain. Yellow fever was extremely contagious. It was usually fatal.

"Yellow fever was just about the scariest thing that could happen on the Southern coastline and in the Caribbean," Sullivan said. "There was no way to stop it and it had an 80 percent fatality rate."

Still, Brunswick had been spared much of yellow fever's ravages at that time, Faulkenberry notes. Brunswick was still a relatively small port city, sparsely populated. There was plenty of fresh water; sewage and other sanitation issues were manageable. Folks back then thought of Brunswick as "fever proof," Faulkenberry said. They just did not get it.

The summer of 1876 was a steaming scorcher, with temperatures peaking in the 100s and rain falling in sheets – nearly 19 inches in June alone. It made for a ripe mosquito breeding ground. Writes Faulkenberry: "The conditions for disaster were present: heat, humidity and standing water.

Yellow fever most likely arrived in Brunswick aboard the Marietta, a Spanish ship that arrived from Cuba, Faulkenberry said. Yellow fever hit Cuba hard in May of that year, taking out the Marietta's entire crew. The ship's owners rounded up yellow fever survivors from a nearby hospital to crew the Marietta on its journey to Brunswick, she said.

The Marietta tied up beside American and British ships at Brunswick's city docks. With the heat, sailors on all ships slept on the open decks. The burgeoning mosquito population feasted.

The first yellow fever victims in Brunswick emerged in August, sailors onboard the American schooner Wm. H. Boardman, which was tied up beside the Marietta. Local merchants returning from visits aboard the ships spread the disease into Brunswick. "Soon, townspeople began to report new victims among vendors who visited the ships, from butchers who supplied the vessels with meat, to a seamstress who came aboard to collect several suits that needed mending," she wrote. "The impact of the disease spread like a blast pattern from the waterfront into the interior of the town."

Meanwhile, yellow fever was wreaking worse havoc still up in Savannah. The outbreak brought the city to a virtual standstill, its untended sewer system turning the city into a cesspool.

Over on St. Simons Island, where sawmills were cranking out 125,000 board feet of lumber per day, folks who could headed up the Altamaha River seeking safe haven, writes Jingle Davis, author of Island Time: An Illustrated History of St. Simons Island, Georgia.

"When an epidemic of yellow fever swept the southern lowlands, the island's mill superintendent and his family and friends fled upriver on a mill tugboat to catch a train inland and escape the deadly disease," Davis writes. "People on St. Simons Island were spared the epidemic, but hundreds of people in Brunswick and Savannah died .. "

Many in Brunswick also abandoned the city to escape the deadly outbreak. Brunswick Dr. J.S. Blain was not among them.

"Five days going without time to eat or sleep," Dr. Blain wrote in a letter to an aunt, excerpted from Sullivan's book, Early Days on the Georgia Tidewater. "No nurses to be had. Myself and [Dr.] Hampton are the only physicians able to go. The dead are buried in boxes hastily made without ceremony."

Before the epidemic relented in October of that year, yellow fever had claimed 112 lives in Brunswick, according to Sullivan. Some 1,066 people succumbed to the disease in Savannah, he said.

Cuban physician Carlos Finlay had it figured out by 1881 that mosquitos were the source of yellow fever. However, it was not until U.S. Army Surgeon Walter Reed concluded the same thing in 1900 that mosquitos earned the infamy and ill repute they deserved.

A yellow fever vaccine was developed shortly after. Other than medical pampering and prayer, there still is no cure for yellow fever once it is contracted.

Quarantine Island, located just east of the Sidney Lanier Bridge where the Brunswick River meets the St. Simons Sound, was once just that. The island originated from decades of incoming ships dropping off ballast rocks. By 1882, the U.S Marine Hospital Service was running a quarantine station there, Sullivan said.

The station remained in operation until around 1910, "when yellow fever had been largely eliminated," he said. "The 1876 Brunswick epidemic was the primary reason the federal authorities established the Quarantine island yellow fever station."

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(c)2020 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)
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