The Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia compiled the most extensive report about diseases and success rates of doctors during the Revolutionary War Period. Aside from mental disorders which affected nearly one fifth of all patients, half of the hospital’s cases concerned seven disorders: scurvy – 15%, fevers – 9%, venereal disease – 9%, dropsy – 6%, eye disease – 4%, and respiratory – 4%. Despite limitations on 18th century medicine, 59% of all patients who were admitted to the hospital were cured and sent home. Another 11% had their symptoms relieved. Thirteen percent died under care. Cities suffered far more than rural areas. From 1768 – 1777, approximately every sixth Philadelphian, (4,175 residents), sought treatment at the Philadelphia Hospital. Many, 65% of all cases, were handled as charity cases.
Epidemic diseases became an increasingly serious problem during the period of rebellion in America. New England had the country’s highest population density experiencing many outbreaks of diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, and whooping cough. Adolescent mortality was heavily affected by these disorders and on rare occasions, farming communities were struck hard; such as Oxford, Massachusetts, where between 1766 and 1769, 10% of its community members died from diphtheria. Rural colonies in the mid-Atlantic experienced relatively few epidemics. The rural south was mostly spared from epidemics.
Cities and urban centers did not fare so well as the countryside, poor sanitation and close proximity of dwellers allowed contagion to spread rapidly among the concentrated populations. Every decade saw smallpox outbreaks in most major cities and in many instances, claimed several hundred lives. The Continental Army was severely susceptible to smallpox because of its close proximity of its soldiers living quarters. Yellow fever, in which there was no medicinal cure, struck city centers hard, however, it did not raise its ugly head until the 1790’s.
The following chart lists the year, major disease and location of epidemics in America from 1763 – 1783.
YEAR DISEASE LOCATION
1763 Typhus Nantucket, Mass. (222 Native Americans died)
1763 Smallpox South Carolina
1763 Diphtheria Philadelphia, PA
1764 Smallpox Charleston, MA & Newport, RI
1764 Scarlet Fever Philadelphia, PA
1764 Typhus Talbot Co., MD
1764-65 Smallpox Creek, Chickasaw, & Choctaw in Georgia
1765 Diphtheria Boston, MA
1765-66 Whooping Cough New England
1765 Smallpox Annapolis, MD and seven nearby counties
1765-66 Smallpox Philadelphia, PA
1766-69 Diphtheria Massachusetts
1768 Smallpox Reading, PA (60 children died)
1768 Smallpox Southeast Virginia
1769 Dysentery Boston, MA (179 people died)
1769 Scarlet Fever Philadelphia, PA
1769 Smallpox Philadelphia, PA
1769 Diphtheria New York, NY
1770-71 Influenza Philadelphia, PA
1771 Whooping Cough New England & Philadelphia, PA
1772 Measles Charlestown, SC to Philadelphia (hundreds died)
1773 Typhus Virginia
1773 Smallpox Philadelphia, PA (300 died)
1773 Scarlet Fever New Haven & East Haven, Conn. & Salem, MA
1775 Smallpox New England
1775 Diphtheria New England, especially Middletown, Conn.
1778 Measles New York, NY & Philadelphia, PA
1781 Influenza Throughout all the colonies
1783 Measles New England
1783 Scarlet Fever Philadelphia, PA
1783 Scarlet Fever New England & Charlestown, SC
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Duffy, John. Epidemics in Colonial America. 1972: Kenniket Press, CA.
Leavitt, Judith Walzer & Numbers, Ronald L. Sickness and Health in America: Readings in the History of Medicine and Public Health. 1997: University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin.
Packard, Francis R. History of Medicine in the United States. 1901: Lippincott Publishers, Philadelphia, PA.