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Yellow Fever Epidemic Correspondence


Held at: Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia [Contact Us]19 S. 22nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

In 1793, the yellow fever epidemic gripped Philadelphia, followed by smaller outbreaks in 1794, 1797, and 1798. Over 5,000 residents died during the first outbreak. At this time, the nation's capital was located in Philadelphia. To avoid the "universal terror," George Washington and Congress fled the city for the outlying suburbs. However, most residents did not have the means to re-locate.

Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), a Philadelphia physician, refused to abandon the city. Rush believed the outbreak stemmed from Philadelphia's unsanitary conditions and rotting vegetables. He performed bloodletting procedures on infected patients, curing about 6,000 people. While Rush was adamant that he had identified the origins of the disease and developed its panacea, it would be another century until the epidemic was linked to a mosquito bite, and a half-century more until a cure was developed.

African Americans also played a vital role in attending to the sick. African Americans were believed to be immune from the disease and were recruited as nurses, cart drivers, coffin makers, and grave diggers. Absalom Jones, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, was among the notable African Americans who assisted during the epidemic.

The doctors and volunteers observed the illness's rapid effects on an infected person: perfect health one day was shrouded in death the next. The illness was marked by fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, and yellow skin. And with the high death rate among adults, just as many children were left orphaned as a result.

Many sustainable innovations derived out of the aftermath of the yellow fever tragedy. The city built hospitals and orphanages and enacted laws to improve sanitary conditions in the streets. To follow up on these public's health initiatives, famed architect Benjamin Latrobe designed the nation's first municipal water system in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic is now attributed to several key factors: the mosquito bite carrying yellow fever originates in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of South America and Africa. In 1793, thousands of infected refugees, revolting against their French occupied colony of Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti), sailed to Philadelphia and landed at the docks. This, in addition to Philadelphia's hot humid summer and low water tables, generated the ideal conditions for mosquitos. Eventually, the epidemic dwindled down as the colder weather eradicated the mosquitos.


The Yellow Fever Epidemic Correspondence contains four letters dating from 1794 to 1799. While the letters were written by several different authors, the uneasiness cloaking Philadelphia during the yellow fever epidemic in the 1790s is well-represented throughout all the letters. The authors' observe not only the loss of friends and family, but also the outbreak's stressful impact on business partnerships and family relationships. The collection will be of interest to researchers interested in first-hand accounts of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia during the 1790s and the business pursuits of merchants during this time period.

Letter to William Smith: April 5, 1794 Thomas Lea was equal parts shipping merchant and 'gentleman'-according to one historical record-who married into the Shippen's, a distinguished Philadelphia family. His wife, Sarah, was the daughter of Edward Shippen, an influential political figure who presided as Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Chief Justice from 1799 to 1804.

A crew member in Lea's shipping outpost responds to merchant William Smith's letter. He acknowledges Lea's death from yellow fever.

Letter to Maria: September 10, 1799 A brother urges his sister, Maria, to write him back as soon as possible, as he has learned that she has contracted yellow fever. David Meredith letter to William Meredith: September 25, 1799 Like the Shippen's, the Meredith's were also a powerful Philadelphia family. Jonathan Meredith emigrated from England to Philadelphia, where he established a successful tanning business. His son David worked at the tanning business while also indulging his entrepreneurial pursuits. With Robert Andrews, David started the firm Andrews and Meredith which traded goods between France and Philadelphia from 1793 to 1797. However, the company deteriorated within several years, after Andrews left the firm without David's knowledge and David's business contacts in France cheated him out of great sums of money. To pay back the substantial debts he owed, David turned to Jonathan for financial assistance. While Jonathan agreed, the loan greatly depleted the family's funds. David's brother, William, deviated from the business world and instead developed a well-respected legal career in Philadelphia. He eventually became the president of Schuylkill Bank.

David writes William about family and business matters and warns his brother not to return to Philadelphia because of the yellow fever's increasing rate.

David Meredith letter to William Meredith: September 30, 1799 David seeks William's legal advice on business matters. He also observes that the yellow fever epidemic is calming down.

Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Finding Aid Author
Bonnie Small
Finding Aid Date
30 May 2019

Collection Inventory

Letter to William Smith, 1794-04-05.
Letter to Maria, 1799-09-10.
David Meredith letter to William Meredith, 1799-09-25.
David Meredith letter to William Meredith, 1799-09-30.

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