Texas Almanac, 1988-1989 Page: 34
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34 TEXAS ALMANAC 1988-1989
The Deadly Visitor
Now no longer a threat in the civilized world, yel-
low fever was for almost 75 years a regular and dead-
ly visitor to Texas' Gulf Coast.
The name yellow fever comes from the deep jaun-
dice that occurs during the latter stages of the dis-
ease, causing the patient's skin to take on an intense
yellow hue. Other symptoms in severe cases of the
viral disease include headache and backache, high
fever, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. The disease
attacks the major organs of the body with a general
infection, causing fatty degeneration of the liver, kid-
neys and heart. Hemorrhaging from the mucous
membranes leads to the "black vomit" that is charac-
teristic of the final stages of yellow fever. Death may
occur four to eight days after onset. Many cases are
much milder, however, and are often mistaken for
other fevers. Recovered cases are immune for life.
Yellow fever was also called "yellow jack" from
the quarantine flag (or jack) raised on incoming
ships by port inspection officers when suspicious
signs were found in passengers or crew members.
The dread disease is thought to have originated in
Africa and to have come to the New World as a stow-
away aboard merchant vessels, starting in the 17th
century. The aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries
the fever, could breed happily in the open barrels of
drinking water that were carried on sailing ships in
According to Dr. Greensville Dowell's 1876 report
on yellow fever and malarial diseases, the first out-
break of yellow fever in Texas occurred in 1833 in
Columbia (now West Columbia) in present-day Bra-
zoria County. From then until 1907, the unwelcome
guest made almost-annual appearances in the state,
mostly along the Gulf Coast, with an occasional sortie
inland. Epidemics occurred in 1833, 1839, 1844, 1847,
1848, 1853, 1854, 1855, 1858, 1859, 1862, 1867, 1873, 1878,
1897, 1898, 1899, 1903and 1907.
During the 1833 outbreak in Columbia, Dr. John
Tinsley, a druggist, and a German physician named
Jeager reported about 60 cases with 32 deaths. Asiatic
cholera also was introduced that year, dealing coastal
residents a double blow.
Details of the yellow fever epidemic of 1839 were
minutely observed, recorded and published by Dr.
Ashbel Smith in the first scientific paper published in
Texas. Smith had been surgeon general of the Texas
army and went on to serve the people of Texas as
diplomat, state representative and agricultural sci-
entist. He also was one of the major catalysts in the
establishment of the University of Texas and the
medical branch at Galveston.
In a letter to Dr. Casper Wistar Pennock written
Oct. 21, 1839, Smith related, "About the first of this
month the Yellow Fever made its appearance on the
Strand (in Galveston)." He went on to describe the
Strand - Galveston's major commercial street - as
being located near a swampy "morass." Since yellow
fever and malaria disappeared when cold weather
arrived or when marshes or other areas of stagnant
water were eliminated, many people concluded that
"bad air" or "marshy emanations" caused the dis-
eases. Smith generally agreed, but he also realized
that yellow fever was not contagious and that mini-
mal medication and maximum nursing care were
better treatment than the harsher remedies em-
ployed by many other physicians of the day. He fa-
vored quinine and calomel, whereas others used,
alone or in various combinations, castor oil, pow-
dered charcoal, sulphate of zinc, oil of black pepper,
chlorine water, Dover's powders, extract of dande-
lion, pulverized capsicum (red pepper), phosphate of
lime, carbonate of lime and elixir of vitriol, not to
During the epidemic of 1847, Smith gained inti-
mate personal knowledge of the disease. He de-
scribed his case as "severe"; he could not sit up in
Dr. Greensville Dowell. Photo Courtesy Moody Medical
Library, The University of Texas Medical Branch at
bed for 11 days, and he fully expected to die. The
physician recovered, however, and went on to treat
victims of many subsequent outbreaks.
There were no trained nurses prior to the Civil
War. Doctors helped as many victims as they could,
but doctors were no more immune to yellow fever
than their patients. Usually family members and
neighbors had to nurse each other. Some of those who
had survived bouts of the disease and were, there-
fore, immune organized into so-called Howard Asso-
ciations to care for the sick, particularly around Gal-
veston and Houston.
But the epidemics were not confined to Galveston
and Houston. Publications of the period reported
cases also in Brazoria, Richmond, Indianola, (Port)
Lavaca, Liberty, Victoria, Brownsville, Matagorda,
Sabine, Corpus Christi, Liverpool, Hockley, Cypress
and La Grange, as well as other locations.
Contemporary descriptions of life during an epi-
demic are graphic. Amelia Barr, a novelist who lived
in Texas from 1856 to 1868, described one outbreak in
Continued on Page 35
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Texas Almanac, 1988-1989, book, 1987; Dallas, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth113819/m1/37/: accessed January 19, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.