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Government Responds to Yellow Fever Outbreak in New York City

How do city governments respond to crisis? What do people in power prioritize when the whole population is affected? How did rumors and panic lead to the first department of NYC’s Board of Health?

It was 1793 when the Yellow Fever ravaged Philadelphia, killing 5,000 people quickly and without explanation. Fearful and uncertain of how the disease was caused and transmitted, New York City formed a Department of Health. Their first action was to quarantine all ships coming into the harbor from Philadelphia. There was little information available, but this department was trying to protect New Yorkers from whatever might be happening Philadelphia. Unfortunately, their efforts simply delayed the inevitable.

Over the next 5 years, Yellow Fever claimed thousands of lives (at this point, the population of New York City was only 60,000 – imagine 8% of the city’s total population dying in 5 years!). No one knew what caused the Yellow Fever, but it was understood that the disease was not contagious. Many speculated that it came from inhaling old coffee grounds, or garbage in the streets. The newly-established Health department tried to clear out heavily-impacted neighborhoods, but the mysterious, fatal disease had reached epidemic levels in New York.

But what narrative was New York City putting out about the epidemic? Like other cities that were impacted by Yellow Fever–primarily Baltimore and Philadelphia–NYC downplayed its severity. If everyone found out that a deadly disease was virtually out of control in New York, the city would lose massive amounts of money from trade, tourism, and residents. People in power feared a mass exodus. Merchants would’ve spoken informally about what was happening in the City, but newspapers and other publications spoke more lightly about the illness. So as the Yellow Fever claimed the lives of thousands of New Yorkers between 1795 and 1803, the rest of the world likely assumed it was just a small, manageable outbreak.

In reality, the Yellow Fever was vicious. It started with severe exhaustion, headaches, and fever, then would escalate to yellowing skin and eyes and psychological delirium. The last, fatal phase, was vomiting black bile and then death. But the specifics were seldom published. The rumor mill churned because the only available information was purely speculative.

It wasn’t until the Cholera outbreak of 1832 that the Health Department mobilized again, cleaning affected areas and quarantining ships. Still, nearly 4,000 lives were lost to Cholera that summer and the Department did not develop further for years to come. With no funding or organization , the Department fell inactive again and the public health was not among NYC’s government’s top concerns.

When a crisis impacts everyone in a community, who controls the story told? How do people outside that community receive information? How would you have responded to the Yellow Fever as a government official with the little funding and limited information? Would the Yellow Fever epidemic have looked different if people were more informed and encouraged to help at this time?