While 19th century medicinal remedies promised a cure for dyspepsia, arthritis and even ornery moods, more serious maladies were taking their toll on New York City’s population. Newspapers, diaries and letters from the Colonial and Early American eras reported disease outbreaks in the city and other urban communities. News of frightening and often fatal diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, cholera, smallpox, typhus and influenza was responsible for widespread panic. Over the years, 19th century medical experts held a variety of interesting theories about the spread of these diseases, and doctors and citizens alike practiced an array of techniques to try to prevent and treat them.
Bad Air: Early Beliefs About the Spread of Disease
Before anyone figured out that germs were responsible for transmissible disease, the theory of disease origin focused on miasmas and zymoses. A miasma was a foul-smelling, polluted or poisonous air emitting from rotting organic matter. Zymoses were diseases believed to develop from fermented organic waste. People of the 19th century associated disease with warm summer air, rotting garbage and decay. Any sort of pollution was suspect. Some believed that yellow fever was due to burials contaminating ground water. Although diseases like malaria and yellow fever were actually carried by mosquitoes, circumstantial evidence supported the miasma theory at the time. Epidemics were worst during the summer when the air was warm and the mosquito population was at its peak, but no one pointed a finger at the flying bugs until 1880.
Local Containment and Treatment Efforts
When outbreaks occurred, local newspapers published an estimate of how many people were infected; this often caused wealthy residents to flee to their rural homes in fear. The infected poor were treated in seclusion, and those who died were buried in separate areas. Treatments for serious diseases were far less pleasant than today’s antibiotics. Repeated bloodletting using scalpels, needles, live leeches or flesh-punching scarificator machines was a common practice. Hot or cold water soaks and irrigation of various body cavities was also popular. Alcohol-based herbal remedies, much like our bitters and elixir concoctions, served as pain relievers and depressants. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that heroin and other opiates were made available for pain management.
New York Cleans It Up
Eventually, the medical profession’s obsession with dirty, smelly air led to an interest in the process of decay and the discovery of disease-causing microorganisms. Germ theory gained acceptance throughout the mid-1800s, but even before it was fully embraced, clean-up efforts were already helping to prevent disease; experts just didn’t know the true reason they were working. By the end of the century, most cities had developed sanitation departments to control water contamination and waste. In 1881, the New York City Department of Sanitation got its start as the Department of Street Cleaning. Coastal areas like the South Street Seaport area were used as dumping grounds for residential and commercial waste. New York’s citizens eventually petitioned the legislature to clean up the accumulated garbage. They weren’t aware of the tiny pathogens lurking in the waste, but they were on the right track.