Black Nurses and the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic
A tale of disease, fear, inflammatory propaganda and ultimate heroism
In 1793, Philadelphia was as large and as cosmopolitan a city as could be found in the new United States. Until 1800, Philadelphia served as the U.S. capital. The city was also home to a substantial number of people of color. Many were freedmen and some were prosperous.
Philadelphia’s white residents often regarded their Black neighbors with disdain and hostility, made worse by an influx of French refugees from Haiti and Santo Domingo, where there had been recent slave uprisings. (At the time, many prominent officials were slave owners, including then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.)
With so much tension, it would not have taken much to cause an explosion. The yellow fever outbreak that summer was more than sufficient.
A Cry for Help
As the disease spread, so too did panic. Some 20,000 residents fled the city. Deaths became so frequent that the College of Physicians asked city officials to stop tolling bells for the dead because the constant ringing was so oppressive.
At the time, no one knew what caused the outbreak. (It was not until the 1880s that the Aedes aegypti mosquito was identified as the principal transmission vector of yellow fever.) Many Philadelphians believed the outbreak was somehow linked to “bad vapors” from coffee left rotting on the docks.
Most people knew the disease was contagious, although many wrongly believed Black people were immune. With the exodus of so many able-bodied residents, care for the sick and dying was limited at best. In desperation, civic leaders — including Declaration of Independence signatory Benjamin Rush, M.D., then a professor at the Institutes of Medicine — approached the city’s Black community for help.
The leaders of Philadelphia’s Free African Society, a mutual aid organization founded in 1787 by ministers Absalom Jones and Richard Allen in partnership with Black abolitionists like William Gray, willingly agreed to provide that assistance.
Few of the Black Philadelphians who answered the call had any medical training.
Nursing, Jones and Allen later remarked, “is in itself a considerable art, derived from experience as well as the exercise of the finer feelings of humanity — this experience, nine-tenths of those employed, it is probable, were wholly strangers to.” Skilled nurses were in very short supply in Philadelphia, and some had already balked at the horrendous conditions at the makeshift hospital established in Andrew Hamilton’s Bush Hill mansion. (Jones and Allen noted that Bush Hill’s two Black nurses were among the few who stayed.)
As the epidemic worsened, greater responsibility fell on the Black volunteers. After several physicians died of the disease, Rush even recruited Jones and Allen, who had some medical experience, to act as nurses. “[He] directed us where to procure medicine duly prepared, with proper directions how to administer them, and at what stages of the disorder to bleed [the patients]; and when we found ourselves uncapable of judging what was proper to be done, to apply to him,” the two ministers later wrote.