Diseases and Epidemics During Revolutionary America 1763 – 1783

Philadelphia Hospital as it appeared in 1800
Philadelphia Hospital as it appeared in 1800

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.

Disease in Colonial America
Disease in Colonial America

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

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

SOURCES

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.

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