The 1899 Yellow Fever Outbreak at Hampton

One hundred and sixteen (116) years ago, roughly 18 months before Dr. Walter Reed tested and proved Dr. Carlos Finlay’s theory for the cause of yellow fever, an outbreak of the disease took hold at the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers’ Southern Branch in Hampton, Virginia. The Hampton Roads region was quarantined for weeks in an effort to avert the diseases’ catastrophic spread.

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On July 29, 1899, Dr. Richard Vickery (left), surgeon at the National Home, sent a telegram to Dr. Walter Wyman, Surgeon General of the Marine Hospital Service office (part of Treasury), to request that an expert assess several suspicious cases of sickness at the Home. The Marine Hospital Service was the ancestral origins of the U.S. Public Health Service and employed the first federal public health officers who were tasked by Congress in 1878 with controlling epidemic diseases through quarantine, disinfection, and immunization programs.

Marine Hospital Service experts–including Dr. Eugene Wasdin, who two years later would try to save President McKinley when he was shot by an assassin–converged on the National Home and immediately determined that yellow fever was present. By August 1st, 1899, eight men had died. The Home was immediately quarantined and cordoned off from the rest of the community. Efforts to account for roughly 3,700 veterans began. They then quarantined most of the Hampton region—including Fort Monroe, Phoebus, Elizabeth City and Warwick counties–stopping rail and ship service to prevent further spread of the disease. Thousands of people and businesses in the region were affected.

Men who lived at the National Home were moved to temporary tents set up outside and disinfection of their quarters began as soon as the first barracks were vacated. Sixteen men, all soldiers of the Civil War, immunes, were employed to do the work. Three experienced immune disinfectors, more than 15 doctors, and nurses arrived to assist. Mattresses were burned while bed linens, floors and floors were disinfected with 1:500 bichloride of mercury solution. Rooms were made airtight as possible and fumigated with Sulphur or formaldehyde. The men were told to “sun and air their blankets and mattresses daily, retire early, avoid chilling their body, avoid night air, avoid getting fatigued. . . avoid intemperance, and wear wet handkerchief or tree leaves in hat when exposed to the sun.”

According to the 1899 Marine Hospital Service report on the epidemic, 44 men at the National Home contracted yellow fever and at least 12 died. David McGallen, a druggist from Albany, NY, who served with the 43rd New York Infantry during the Civil War, was the first to die on July 26th , 1899 and he is buried in the national cemetery at Hampton. The last deaths at the National Home, according to the 1899 report, occurred on August 4th. The report noted that some men hid or snuck off the premises to avoid going to the hospital, so final counts on the number infected were based on known cases.

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William Thomas, a soldier on his way from Cuba to his next station in the state of Washington, entered the National Home in Hampton around July 2, 1899, and was viewed as the culprit for carrying the disease to the Home. He was tracked down and interviewed by Dr. Rupert Blue, of the Marine Hospital Service (and future Surgeon General for the Public Health Service) and vehemently denied being infected or the source of the outbreak. In the end, a definitive person or “smoking gun” was not identified.

The National Home’s surgeon, Dr. Vickery was praised for taking quick action when he suspected yellow fever and was mentioned in the report: “The limitation of the spread of the disease within the Home itself to the relatively small number of 43 cases (of which 13 died) is unquestionably due to the prompt recognition by Surgeon Vickery that he had to deal with some infectious disease, although it did not appear, at first, to be positively yellow fever. Governor Woodfin and Major Vickery working in harmony caused the effects of all the sick to be sunned and aired rapidly, and. . .this work had a marked effect in lessening the spread of yellow fever. . . This is believed to be the most successful work of the kind which has ever been accomplished. . ..” Quarantine of the larger Hampton community ended on August 11, 1899 with it remaining in effect at the National Home and Phoebus community. Quarantine of Phoebus ended August 15th and the National Home’s ended on September 9, 1899.

Dr. Vickery was an Irish immigrant who began his medical studies in Dublin. He came to the U.S. in 1851 and entered the University of Michigan medical school in 1860. His 1864 Michigan thesis, “On the Duties of the Surgeon in Action,” became a favorite reference book for many surgeons and medical students of the 19th century. He served as surgeon for the 2nd Michigan Infantry during the Civil War and mustered out in March 1865. He later served as Surgeon for the Regular Army from May 1867 until his retirement at Fort Monroe in 1891 and was appointed as Surgeon for the National Home’s Southern Branch (Hampton) in 1897. He died on January 3, 1906.

Photos: top – Dr. Richard Vickery, surgeon of the National Homes’ Southern Branch in Hampton, 1890c., NLM; bottom – headline for article on the outbreak from Daily Press, August 10, 1899, p. 5.

 

Story by Historian, Veterans Health Administration

 

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