Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793: ‘All was not right in our city.’

Join us on an audio walking tour through Philadelphia's Old City to discover how the yellow fever epidemic challenged the city’s health and political infrastructure.

An audio walking tour through Philadelphia’s Old City

It was hot in Philadelphia during the summer of 1793 — very hot. And the soaring temperatures complicated life in the city. Foul smells of rotting refuse and waste permeated the air. Swarms of mosquitos buzzed about.

This was our nation’s capital, a busy center of politics, trade, and learning, but struggling to keep up with the refuse from industry and a growing population.

And a vicious illness started to spread among the city’s 55,000 inhabitants.

In August, prominent physician Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, long considered the father of American medicine, described an “unusual number of bilious fevers, accompanied with symptoms of uncommon malignity.” He concluded that, “All was not right in our city.”

Yellow fever, gone from Philadelphia for 30 years, had returned, and more and more people were falling ill.

Those who could get out fled the city. Those who remained lived in fear.

This was one of the city’s most devastating moments. Within just three months, 5,000 of those who stayed behind died of the infection.

The yellow fever epidemic challenged the city’s health and political infrastructure, and revealed a nation ill-prepared to support its citizens in such difficult times. In its wake, important changes were made to promote public health, and to ensure the city and nation would be better prepared in the future.

Join us for an audio journey back in time, visiting five sites around Philadelphia’s historic Old City to learn about the 1793 yellow fever outbreak and what happened next.

This tour is hosted by public health historian Michael Yudell, and Maiken Scott, creator of the WHYY health and science show The Pulse.

Elfreth’s Alley is a National Historic Landmark located in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. It’s  known as “Our nation’s oldest residential street.” (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continuously inhabited residential street in the United States. This quaint alleyway is the perfect place to walk around, and imagine what life was like for early Philadelphians on the eve of the yellow fever epidemic.

Architectural historian Emily Cooperman explains what it was like to live in a densely populated urban settings like this:

Picture merchants hawking their wares on the street, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carts, people and animals coming and going. The first floors of these little houses were usually shops, and several families shared most dwellings. There was no indoor plumbing, and the streets were nowhere near as clean as they are today.

“One of the things you don’t see today is the dirt and the garbage, and the horse and cow manure that would have been on the street in 1793,” Cooperman says.

As yellow fever begins to spread, residents fear for their lives. Where is this illness coming from? Who will get sick next?

The cobblestones at Dock Street curve around the Merchant Exchange Building in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Where we now see cobblestones at Dock Street, near 3rd and Walnut, there was once water: Dock Creek.

The creek had tides, and slowed to a trickle in the summer months. Trash accumulated in the water, the carcasses of dead animals rotting in the sun. Flies buzzed about. And many residents thought this could be a potential source of the disease that was infecting Philadelphians.

As the illness grips the city, more and more citizens experience horrifying symptoms. Infectious disease specialist Esther Chernak explains the progression of yellow fever, and why it can be so deceptive. People are dying, and rumors are flying. Everybody wants to know where this illness is coming from.  Many point their fingers at the dirt and stench.

History professor David Barnes explains how this medical issue becomes a political issue. “Cleaning up the filth in the streets was simply one of the most urgent of many longer-term improvements for the development of this young nation,” Barnes says.

The Benjamin Rush Garden is part of the Independence National Historical Park at 3rd and Walnut Streets.  (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

We arrive at the Benjamin Rush Garden at 3rd and Walnut, once the site of Dr. Rush’s home during the yellow fever outbreak, where a lovely garden now spreads over this plot. The adjacent brick homes give you an idea of what Rush’s house might have looked like, though it was probably smaller.

We are joined here by best-selling author, Stephen Fried, who has written a biography about Rush. Fried describes Rush’s distinguished place in political and scientific circles in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia.

Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and was America’s best known physician during his lifetime.

As yellow fever spreads quickly through the city, Rush’s radical treatment of bleeding and purging and his care of patients across the city made him a hero to many, but a killer to those who are opposed to his treatment.

The crisis quickly turns political. “When there’s no science, politics will take over. We think of this as a modern concept, but this comes from the very beginning of America,” says Fried.

Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on 6th Street in Philadelphia, Pa. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY)

We’ve now walked a few blocks south to 6th and Addison Streets where the magnificent Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church stands.

The ground this church sits on is believed to be the oldest piece of land in the United States that has been continuously owned by African Americans. That lineage dates back to 1791, when the land was purchased by preacher Richard Allen for the creation of a new, independent black church.

But the plans were put on hold as the yellow fever epidemic raged.

Here at Mother Bethel, we’ll learn about the heroic role played by Philadelphia’s free African-American population during the outbreak. Richard Allen and fellow minister Absalom Jones heed their friend Benjamin Rush’s request to join him in caring for Philadelphia’s sick. African Americans work tirelessly as nurses, administering treatments, and burying the dead, risking their own lives.

This thrusts the black community to the center of the political and medical controversy of yellow fever in 1793. Their compassionate actions came to be a story of resistance to racism in the shadow of the epidemic.

We talk to the Reverend Mark Tyler, Senior Pastor at Mother Bethel, and Arthur Sudler, who directs the Historical Society at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.

On your way to the next and final stop, you may pass by Washington Square at 6th and Walnut Streets, another important site in the history of 1793, where a large number of the 5,000 Philadelphians, who died during the yellow fever epidemic, rest in what was once a potter’s field.

The grave site of Benjamin Rush, who is considered the father of American medicine, at Christ Church Burial Ground. (WHYY)

We’ve made it to our last stop, Christ Church Burial Ground at 5th and Arch Streets, where Benjamin Rush was laid to rest in 1813.

It’s difficult to read the inscription on his tombstone, but it says, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

Rush was both a hero to many and a target of political and medical controversy to others in the decade after the outbreak.

It took more than 100 years for scientists to figure out what caused yellow fever — hint, it was not the rotting coffee on the wharfs.

Join us as we conclude our tour with a walk through this cemetery that dates back to 1791 and is the resting place for 4000 people, including around 400 who died in the 1793 outbreak. We’ll hear concluding thoughts about Rush from Stephen Fried, about what we know today about yellow fever from Dr. Esther Chernak, and what happened in the wake of the epidemic to Philadelphia’s public health infrastructure from historian David Barnes.

For a weekly dose of great health and science stories, tune into The Pulse or subscribe to our podcast.

This walking tour was produced and sound-designed by Maiken Scott of WHYY with Michael Yudell of Drexel University. Emily Pontecorvo reported segments of this tour. Voice acting by Aldine Banks and Jim Barton. We had production assistance from Julian Harris. Mixing by Charlie Kaier. Web production by Lindsay Lazarski.

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