The St. Louis Epidemic That Wasn't

27, August 2017

Major Walter Reed, a surgeon in the U.S. Army at the turn of the 20th century, is typically given credit for proving the connection between mosquitos and yellow fever. But what if he wasn’t the first person to observe the link between the two?

Color postcard of a man prepared to wage battle against a mosquitoA postcard showing an armed man taking on a yellow fever–carrying mosquito, 1905. Image courtesy of Joe E. Haynes and the University of North Texas Libraries.

In 1939, William S. Bryan wrote to his great-niece, Jo Ann “Josie” Davis, that her father, Dr. Henry Clay Davis, had seen mosquitos swarming in an old well near St. Louis’s quarantine facility for yellow fever patients back in 1878.

His observation led him to believe that the yellow fever germ was communicated by mosquitos and he wrote a letter to his superior in St. Louis (whose name I do not recall) giving his reasons for such belief. The contents of this letter were subsequently made public, which led to the investigation by the government and the discovery of the fact that your father’s belief was correct.

He was therefore the author of this great discovery which has saved millions of lives and removed a pest from sections of the world that were subject to the infection.

Whether Bryan’s declaration can be proven is unclear. What is certain is that Dr. Henry Clay Davis, a 26-year-old only three years out of medical school, saved St. Louis from a scourge that was wreaking havoc all along the southern half of the Mississippi River.

The Dreaded "Yellow Jack"

Cases of yellow fever first began to appear in New Orleans in mid-July 1878. The disease—and the panic it inspired, thanks to its tendency to cause high fever, bloody vomit, jaundice, delirium, and death—had spread to Memphis by August. News of this development arrived in St. Louis, but city officials chose not to quarantine northbound ships in order to keep commerce flowing.

Green quarantine notice from Cape Girardeau, MOUnlike St. Louis, Cape Girardeau did declare an official quarantine on northbound vessels during the yellow fever outbreak of 1878. Missouri History Museum.

The public didn’t stand for this. As sick people began to arrive from the South, St. Louisans who lived near City Hospital threatened protests if additional yellow fever patients were treated there. In early August, city health commissioner Charles W. Francis set a quarantine plan in motion that involved reopening the local quarantine facility and appointing Davis as its “physician in charge.”

Bryan recalled how his nephew came to see him “on the day of his appointment as superintendent of the yellow fever hospital, which had been established near the Mississippi River about six miles below the city.” He went on to note:

I told him it was a very dangerous mission, from which he might never return. But he replied that a doctor must go where duty called without regard to danger or adverse circumstances. He left me in high spirits and an hour later took charge of the hospital. It was the last time I ever saw him alive.

Waging Battle

Black-and-white photo of Dr. Henry Clay DavisDr. Henry Clay Davis. Missouri History Museum.

Davis diligently inspected vessels arriving from southern ports, checking passengers for any sign of yellow fever and overseeing the sterilization of the ships. He also tended to sick patients, forgoing sleep to see everything done.

In a report to the St. Louis Medical Society, Health Commissioner Francis recalled receiving a letter from Davis dated September 16, 1878, that reported a problem with Quarantine Station’s sewage system. A privy near the kitchen was dumping waste into the river—within 25 feet of where river water was being pumped up for use in the building. Davis had personally gone down into the ground to investigate and attempt to repair the problem.

Whether mosquitos or sewage were to blame, the young doctor fell ill on October 8 with a chill and a continuous fever. Within a week, black vomit and delirium followed. Davis’s aunt, Emily Bryan, wrote to a sister on October 16 “how sad and lonely to die among strangers . . . but he did not want for attention, good nurses and doctors were there.”

Indeed, Davis was nursed by an equally brave soul, Kate McSorley, whose assistance was all the more notable for her age—she was just 15 or 16 when she volunteered to help Davis during his illness. She stayed by his side as he suffered and followed him in death mere hours later.

Black-and-white photo from ceremony dedicating plaque to Kate McSorleyThe tombstone plaque commemorating Kate McSorley's sacrifice was dedicated in May 1940. No official memorial exists to Dr. Henry Clay Davis. Missouri History Museum.

A City Saved

Color photo of a box used to collect donations for yellow fever victimsSt. Louis was one of many places where people and businesses donated money to aid yellow fever victims. Missouri History Museum.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1878 was remarkable for its death toll, killing nearly 4,000 in New Orleans and more than 5,000 in Memphis, where it also created thousands more refugees who fled the city to save themselves.

St. Louis lost just 71 lives to the disease, among them the hero who prevented the epidemic from taking root in the city and the heroine who cared for him in his final days. Their graves are marked with variations on an apt phrase: “The noblest sacrifice one can make to give one's life to the call of duty.”

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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