The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
The rampant spread of disease was common in the days before penicillin and other “wonder drugs” of the twentieth century. Our ancestors lived in fear of epidemics, and many of them died as the result of simple diseases that could be cured today with an injection or a prescription.
If you ever wondered why a large number of your ancestors disappeared during a certain period in history, you may want to investigate the possibility of an epidemic. Many cases of people disappearing from records can be traced to dying during an epidemic or moving away from the affected area.
Some of the epidemic statistics are staggering. For instance, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919 killed more people than did World War I. Any major outbreak of disease was accelerated by a total absence of sanitary procedures and lack of knowledge. In Europe during the Middle Ages, the homes of the citizens often had roofs and walls made of straw, floors of dirt, and dwellings where animals were kept inside. The city streets, if that’s what you could call them, often were barely wide enough for a single cart to pass, and they were perpetually covered with mud, garbage, and excrement. For lack of heated water, people rarely bathed, and fleas were commonplace. It is a wonder that anyone survived under these conditions!
North America had fewer problems in the early days of European settlement than their relatives across the Atlantic. In the seventeenth century, the relative isolation of many colonies tended to limit the impact of epidemics. One study of seventeenth-century colonists in Massachusetts shows an extraordinarily healthy population as measured by statistics on average length of life, mortality and morbidity rates, and infant mortality. Male residents of the first settlements lived into their seventies and eighties while their English counterparts were dying in their mid-thirties. Similarly, colonial women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony who escaped death during childbirth also lived long lives. At the same time, early settlements in warmer areas had more difficulties with epidemics. The first generations of settlers in the Virginia colonies were plagued by malaria, yellow fever, and other epidemics. Yet New England had very few problems with the same diseases.
Smallpox, an acute viral disease that disfigures its victims, was perhaps the most fearsome illness of the colonial period. Introduced to the Americas by European colonists, the disease had an especially devastating effect on Native Americans who, because of their lack of contact with the virus, had virtually no immunity to it. Native American populations throughout the colonies were all but wiped out.
By the end of the eighteenth century, North America was becoming increasingly urbanized, and the lack of sanitation amongst the population made epidemics a much greater threat. Epidemic disease began to sweep through the nation along well-established trade routes. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the crowded and increasingly poor urban centers experienced death rates that were as high as those in Europe. Cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, and other waterborne and airborne infectious conditions became endemic in such cities as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.
Napoleon lost thousands of his men to typhus in Russia – as did the Russians who caught it from the enemy. Many historians believe that Napoleon would have won were it not for the might of his opponents, “General Winter, General Famine, and General Typhus.”
Typhoid raged on in colonial New York and Massachusetts. It reappeared for the last time in epidemic form in America in the early 1900s, compliments of the celebrated Typhoid Mary. Mary Maflon was a cook for the moneyed set of New York State; her specialty was homemade ice cream. Officially, she infected 53 people – with three deaths – before she was tracked down. Unofficially, she is blamed for some 1,400 cases that occurred in 1903 in Ithaca, where she worked for several families. Never sick herself, it took a lot of persuasion by authorities to convince her that she was a carrier of the disease. Health authorities quarantined her once, let her go, and then quarantined her for the rest of her life when another outbreak occurred.
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