Published June 25, 2020

By: Aiden Carroll

On July 1, Virginia will move into Phase 3 of reopening. This new development will see the reopening of childcare centers, gyms, and amusement parks. While many areas of Virginia will inevitably struggle with the challenges of reopening for the first time, the city of Norfolk is no stranger to quarantine.

For nearly 115 years, Yellow Fever ravaged North America, beginning with the 1793 epidemic in Philadelphia and ending with the last-recorded domestic outbreak in New Orleans in 1905. Between 1793 and 1905, cities across the US were struck by Yellow Fever (or Yellow Jack), including New York, Boston, Baltimore, Savannah, St. Augustine, and Memphis. One such outbreak often overlooked by history, however, was the 1855 outbreak in Portsmouth and Norfolk, VA. This outbreak killed nearly 3,000 citizens of the two adjacent cities, equivalent to about 13% of their combined population at the time. One of the only detailed accounts of this outbreak are the letters and personal statements written by Rev. George Armstrong, compiled in his 1856 book The Summer of the Pestilence.

Rev. Armstrong’s text is a testimony to his fears, insights, and divinations following his experiences of the epidemic. Rev. Armstrong had spent just four years as the minister of the First Presbytarian Church of Norfolk before the Yellow Fever descended upon his congregation in late July of 1855, the first victim being Armstrong’s own nephew, Edmund James. Before its peak, however, many citizens doubted the presence of Yellow Fever in Norfolk. In fact, before being recognized officially as an outbreak of Yellow Fever, the affliction was referred to among community members as “Upshur Fever.” This was named as a jab at Norfolk physician Dr. George L. Upshur, who was blamed for sewing fear among the population despite his correct diagnosis of several initial Yellow Fever carriers. 

While Rev. Armstrong had the financial capability to flee the city along with other members of the Norfolk elite, he ultimately decided to stay and open his congregation to members of the Norfolk community. By early September, Rev. Armstrong writes that he was burying one or more members of his congregation every day. Rev. Armstrong’s words are perhaps most chilling in mid-September, when he recounts that he would wake each morning and ask himself “Whom have I to bury today?” (p. 111). 

Rev. Armstrong himself paid a price for remaining in the city, contracting the Yellow Fever at the peak of the infection. Although he recovered, Rev. Armstrong lost several prominent members of his family to the Yellow Jack, including his wife, eldest daughter, and beloved nephew. While the loss from the Norfolk-Portsmouth epidemic was extreme, it was relatively short-lived: by mid-November, deaths from the fever had dwindled to barely one per week. However, the long-term effects were blatantly and abundantly clear. In one of his final letters, Rev. Armstrong recounts the state of his congregation during their first in-person meeting following the epidemic. Looking out over the congregation, he notices that only three families in attendance are not clad in mourning. The empty seats around the church are heavily apparent, pregnant with the memories of the congregants lost to the disease.

It was not until 1937, when Max Theiler and the Rockefeller Foundation developed the highly effective 17D strain vaccine, that the Yellow Fever finally became a combattable disease rather than a harbinger of death. Its impact can still be seen today in Norfolk, inconspicuously memorialized in a public park, marking the burial site of numerous victims. 

Theiler still maintains his legacy as the only Nobel Laureate honored for the creation of a vaccine. If anyone has the potential to join him, it might be the developer of a Coronavirus vaccine. But that is one of many possibilities for which we will have to wait and see.


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