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Yellow Fever and Public Health in the New South

Yellow Fever and Public Health in the New South

Copyright Date: 1992
Edition: 1
Pages: 248
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    Yellow Fever and Public Health in the New South
    Book Description:

    The public health movement in the South began in the wake of a yellow fever epidemic that devastated the lower Mississippi Valley in 1878--a disaster that caused 20,000 deaths and financial losses of nearly $200 million. The full scale of the epidemic and the tentative, troubled southern response to it are for the first time fully examined by John Ellis in this new book.

    At the national level, southern congressional leaders fought to establish a strong federal health agency, but they were defeated by the young American Public Health Association, which defended states' rights. Local responses and results were mixed. In New Orleans, business and professional men, reacting to the denunciation of the city as the nation's pesthole, organized in 1879 to improve drainage, garbage disposal, and water supplies through voluntary subscription. Their achievements were of necessity modest.

    In Memphis--the city hardest hit by the epidemic--a new municipal government in 1879 helped form the first regional health organization and during the 1880s led the nation in sanitary improvements. In Atlanta, though it largely escaped the epidemic, the Constitution and some citizens called for health reform. Ironically their voices were drowned out by ritual invocation of local health mythology and by unabashed exploitation of the stigma of pestilence attached to New Orleans and Memphis. By 1890 Atlanta rivaled Charleston and Richmond for primacy in black mortality rates.

    That the public health movement met with only limited success Ellis attributes to the prevailing atmosphere of opportunistic greed, overwhelming debt, economic instability, and inordinate political corruption. But the effort to combat a terrifying disease not fully understood did eventually produce changes and the vastly improved health systems of today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4822-9
    Subjects: Health Sciences, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 Beginnings of the Public Health Movement
    (pp. 1-13)

    The public health movement in the South originated in the aftermath of the lower Mississippi Valley yellow fever epidemic in 1878, one of the worst disasters in American history. This study will assess the movement’s early development during the period 1878–88 by focusing on the responses of New Orleans, Memphis, and Atlanta to the crisis of the epidemic and to the ensuing denunciation of southern cities in the national press as dens of filth, pestilence, and death. The movement was distinctive in ways peculiar to the region and to the cities. Each city represents a particular era in southern...

  6. 2 The Necropolitan South
    (pp. 14-36)

    When the president of New Orleans’s board of health noted in 1854 that “the primary object in the location of sites for cities, has never been, as it should be,—for the enjoyment of health,—the leading idea has always been,—its convenience for commerce,—business, or political purposes,” he implied a distinction made by modern urban geographers between a city’s site and its situation.¹Siteis a city’s actual real estate or physical environment;situationdescribes its location relative to other places.² In pointing to “convenience for commerce” as the basic determinant, Dr. Edward Hall Barton was simply saying...

  7. 3 The Epidemic of 1878
    (pp. 37-59)

    On January 1, 1878, the New OrleansDaily Picayunedevoted its editorial column to what the glancing reader might have taken to be the usual statement of New Year’s wishes. It began with the customary expressions of hope that the new year would bring prosperity and general well-being to the city. Then, in a sudden shift of mood, the writer turned to more somber prospects.

    We know that some who are in the enjoyment of robust health will [before the year is out] be on beds of sickness. We know that some who now glow with the brightness and hopes...

  8. 4 The Quest for National Health Legislation
    (pp. 60-82)

    While the epidemic was still raging, bitter recriminations were brought against the South for its sanitary deficiencies. Obliquely referring to New Orleans as a case in point, the ChicagoTimescharged that “filthy living is one, and perhaps the chief, of the causes of the yellow fever visitation.”¹ An article in the WashingtonPostof September 2, 1878, headed “Filth the Cause and Cleanliness the Cure of the Southern Pest,” named a District physician as its author. Two days later, while yellow fever victims were dying by the hundreds in New Orleans and Memphis, the New YorkTimesnoted the...

  9. 5 The New Orleans Sanitary Association
    (pp. 83-104)

    The failure of the southern quest for national health legislation in March 1879 produced what the leading men of New Orleans regarded as a state of extreme emergency. As the Louisiana State Board of Health prepared to impose a severely restrictive quarantine on the city’s Caribbean trade, state and local boards of health in the Mississippi Valley made ready to take similar defensive measures affecting the region’s commerce with New Orleans. Then on March 3, 1879, the day Woodworth and the southern congressmen met defeat, the nightmarish prospect that the city’s businessmen had envisioned the preceding November—that the great...

  10. 6 Tales of Romance from Memphis
    (pp. 105-124)

    In early November 1878, as the first refugees returned and places of business slowly stirred with activity, the MemphisDaily Appealmade a public confession on behalf of the battered community: “We have been a prey to every excess of human passion, folly, ignorance and incapacity, and to-day, as a result, have to stand with our heads bowed, confessing in an overwhelming debt, in a rotten pavement, and in the want of a sanitary system that we are still wobbling in the weakness of municipal adolescence.”¹ The negative attributes of human nature enumerated by theDaily Appealwere particularly apparent...

  11. 7 The Sanitary Question in Atlanta
    (pp. 125-145)

    Atlanta’s civic experience down to the end of Reconstruction, unlike that of New Orleans and Memphis during the same period, was characterized by the absence of great epidemics of Asiatic cholera and yellow fever that scourged so many southern communities. This good fortune was attributed time and again in public discourse to Atlanta pluck and spirit, above all to altitude, and occasionally to Christian virtue. Indeed, the Puritan emphasis on work and success brought by the town’s early Yankee settlers was the very bedrock of the New South creed.¹ Yet by 1877 only a pitiful few and meager provisions for...

  12. 8 Public Health in the New South
    (pp. 146-168)

    The culmination of the New South crusade in little more than a decade following the disastrous yellow fever epidemic in 1878 also marked the end of the initial phase of the southern public health movement. Unfortunately, however, as Paul M. Gaston notes, “the South remained the poorest and economically least progressive section of the nation. The plans for regional and personal success, the restoration of self-confidence, and a position of influence and respect in the nation likewise fired the imagination and gained legions of adherents, but they too were largely unfulfilled and at the end of the New South crusade...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 169-224)
  14. Index
    (pp. 225-233)