Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 2, Number 3, September, 1992 Page: 131
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The Epidemic of 1873, in Columbus, Texas
by Robert Henry Harrison, M. D.
edited by Bill Stein, with an introduction by Robert W. Wolters, M. D.
Yellow fever is a disease of viral etiology which most likely originated in the
regions of the equatorial rain forests on the African continent. The spread of the virus
to the New World was in all probability enabled by slave ships travelling between the
Caribbean Islands and Africa. The vector now has been established as the mosquito
Aedes aegypti, which is common to the above described regions and native to southeast
Texas. Aedes aegypti breeds in stagnant pools of fresh water, a factor that may have
been important in the spread of yellow fever to Columbus in 1873.
Two types of yellow fever are generally recognized. In areas in which the
disease is endemic, a jungle or sylvan strain, of which monkeys are the natural hosts,
is found. This form exists in the African and South American rain forests. The epidemic
or urban form of the disease exists when man becomes infected by the bite of a mosquito
carrying the virus. As in the case of many diseases of which man is an unlikely host,
the disease is much more virulent and has a higher degree of morbidity and mortality in
man than in the natural host. Once the virus is introduced into the population, if a means
for transmission exists, the potential for an epidemic exists.
For the disease to be introduced to a new area, two things must be present:
a susceptible population and a vector to spread the virus. Several factors contributed
to the outbreak of yellow fever in Columbus in 1873. First, the above-normal rainfall and
the subsequent flooding that occurred caused an explosion of mosquitoes, permitting
more than the usually high crop of possible disease vectors. Probably of more importance
however, was the presence of the railroad. Yellow fever epidemics had occurred in
Philadelphia, Mobile, and New Orleans the same year, but the probable source of the
disease in the case of Columbus was its endemic existence in the Caribbean, including
Cuba. At the time, there was an active trade between Havana and small ports on the
upper reaches of Galveston and Trinity Bay. It is my surmise that it was upon one of
the ships engaged in this trade that the virus came to be reintroduced to Texas, and that
it spread, via the railroad, to such cities along it as Columbus, to the west, and Calvert,
which had an epidemic the same year, to the north.
Interestingly, the outbreak of yellow fever in Columbus was preceded by a
similar but lesser epidemic in August and September. This disease, consisting of fever,
aches, and general malaise that was recorded as having a relapsing pattern, appears to
have been dengue fever, as the virus which causes it and that which causes yellow fever
are carried by the same mosquito, Aedes aegypti. Both viruses are found in the same
areas of the tropical western hemisphere and most likely arrived in Texas in the same
manner. This disease, while having significant morbidity and high attack rate, is only
rarely fatal. Its mere existence in 1873 likely would not even have been noted except
for the subsequent yellow fever epidemic.
The yellow fever epidemic in Columbus began around October 1, 1873 and
continued throughout the fall months. A review of the existing records suggest that
Columbus was inflicted with a particularly virulent form of the virus, for the mortality rate
was somewhat higher than would be expected in comparison with other epidemics of
the time. The medicalliterature reports deaths from outbreaks of yellow fever are usually
in the twenty percent range, a level that appears to have been exceeded in Columbus.
Epidemiologically, the disease appears to have followed established norms in that the
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Nesbitt Memorial Library. Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 2, Number 3, September, 1992, periodical, September 1992; Columbus, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth151386/m1/3/?q=nesbitt%20memorial%20library%20journal: accessed September 21, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Nesbitt Memorial Library.