Antebellum Health Care

By the early 1830s, Augusta boasted a functional hospital and a foundational medical school  –   which expanded and was renamed the Medical College of Georgia in 1833.

The years leading up to the American Civil War proved to be extraordinarily taxing on this basic health care infrastructure, largely due to the recurring outbreak of yellow fever epidemics. Yellow fever in its advanced stages could cause internal bleeding, organ failure, severe jaundice  and death. Spread by West African mosquitos, the disease reached America on slave ships, and from the late 1600s through the antebellum era, outbreaks were common along coastal and port cities like New Orleans. Unfortunately, the notion of contagion was misunderstood, and the scientific community theorized that the disease was spread through direct contact with infected people, “vitiated air” or decaying tropical fruit left to rot in marketplaces.

The first of the major Augustan outbreaks occurred between June  and November 1839, with up to 2,000 cases resulting in some 240 deaths. Medical College founder Dr. Milton Antony was among those who perished. Three of the college’s physicians studied the epidemic and largely debunked the theory of contagion, positing that “it was not proximity to the sick, but habitancy in the infected district which subjected the attendant to the malady,” and was due instead to some local origin, most likely a massive trash wharf.

It was an important scientific step that likely made Augusta’s 1854 yellow fever outbreak less deadly. Led by Dr. Henry F. Campbell, “the observations of 1854 confirmed the conclusion of 1839 of the non-contagiousness of yellow fever, but led to a very careful examination of the doctrine of local origin, with the result of evolving a theory that yellow fever is of exotic origin, has no native habitat in the United States, and only effects a foothold by transportation of a germ or spore.” It wouldn’t be until 1900 that Army surgeon Walter Reed proved that mosquitos were responsible for this transportation.

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