On August 27, 1900, U.S. Army physician James Carroll allowed an infected mosquito to feed on him in an attempt to isolate the means of transmission of yellow fever. Carroll developed a severe case of yellow fever, helping his colleague, Army pathologist Walter Reed, prove that mosquitoes transmit this often-deadly disease.
Prior to these findings, epidemics of yellow fever were common in the American South. Uncertain of how the disease was transmitted, many people would leave the South for the summer, the season in which the epidemics were most common, returning after the first frost.
During the 1888 yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville, Florida, the government offered railroad transportation out of the area. In a 1940 interview, William F. Hawley describes the scene of panic at the train station:
[The trains] were packed to the limit, even the roofs of the cars [were] crowded with terrified citizens…Some people in their haste left their homes with fires burning, food in preparation for the noonday meal, and doors wide open.
[William F. Hawley]. Rose Shepherd, interviewer; Arlington, Florida, June 24, 1940. American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940. Manuscript Division
The Jacksonville epidemic began in the Mayflower Hotel which was “condemned and ordered burned to the ground,” according to Mr. Hawley. Many remedies were tried, such as burning barrels of tar in the street to disinfect the air and spraying a mixture of copper, sulfur, and lime in the homes of the infected.
Even doctors were at a loss for a means of stopping the spread of yellow fever. In the 1939 interview “Ruby Beach,” Mrs. Scull remembered that during the Jacksonville epidemic, Dr. Wiley, president of the Board of Health, warned her and her sister not to go into the room with their ill mother. “The surest way possible for you to get the fever is to go near her bed,” he warned. Her sister astonished the doctor by reporting, “I’ve slept there two nights, and I am all right.”
- After Doctors Reed and Carroll’s discovery, effective ways were found to combat mosquitoes and the disease they transmitted. Search on the term Walter Reed in the Horydczak Collection to see images of the medical facility named in Dr. Reed’s honor.
- Search on yellow fever in the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 -1940 interviews to find more stories.
- Search on yellow fever in the Making of America: Periodicals External collection for a wealth of articles that touch on the effect of the disease on everyday life.
- Search on the term Walter Reed in Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey to find black-and-white images of the house of Dr. Walter Reed and data pages about the man and his home.
- View The Great Fever External from the PBS American Experience series for more information including a timeline, an explanation of how yellow fever is transmitted, a map of major American epidemics of yellow fever from 1793 to 1905, and a transcript of the film.
- Search on the term laboratory in the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection to find images of medical, pharmaceutical, and other laboratories of the mid-twentieth century.