Nice & Curious Questions

Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs


Virginia’s Epidemics:

Real and Imagined


The false anthrax scare in northern Virginia last month got us thinking about how the Commonwealth has confronted its epidemics over the ages.


Anthrax is a disease as old as civilization. Some scholars believe the “burning plague” in Homer’s Iliad was anthrax, and the Latin poet Virgil, born in 70 B.C.E., described the disease in detail in his Georgics. But in Virginia, Bacillus anthracis has been less common than smallpox, yellow fever, influenza and polio in decimating populations.


Perhaps the first Virginians to succumb to the ravages of infectious disease were the settlers at Jamestown. Mosquito-borne yellow fever and malaria took its toll on the colony’s first generation. Eighty percent of the 6,000 settlers sent to Jamestown between 1607 and 1625 died from disease, starvation, Indian attack or other causes.


Smallpox, however, was probably the most feared disease in Virginia’s colonial period. There were outbreaks from 1679-1680 and 1696. By the start of the American Revolution, the disease was so prevalent that General Washington described it in 1777 as “more to dread … than the Sword of the Enemy,” according to researchers at Mt. Vernon.


Washington, in addition to his status as patriarch of our country, may be considered the father of public health in the new nation, the Mt. Vernon historians write. He believed in the controversial practice of inoculation that was brought back to Europe from India by a diplomat’s wife in 1718. A bit of matter from a smallpox pustule was removed and placed under the skin of individuals who never had it. They suffered from a mild version of the disease and recovered. Such individuals were then immune to smallpox the rest of their lives. Many colonies, though, thought inoculation would spread the disease and declared the practice illegal. Virginia banned inoculation in 1749.


When the American Revolution broke out, it was reported the British may have practiced the first instance of biological warfare in the new nation. In the fall of 1775, during a smallpox epidemic in Boston, then occupied by the British, there were reports the redcoats sent ill citizens out to the American lines to infect Washington’s troops. While Washington believed in inoculation, he at first prohibited it, fearing the loss of sick troops during battle. He eventually developed a system to inoculate new recruits, so they contracted the mild form of the disease, but were well enough to fight by the time they had received uniforms and weapons.


The spread of epidemic diseases in Virginia and the rest of the nation was closely related to social, economic and geographical conditions, reports The Reader’s Companion to American History. The isolation of early American colonies in the 17th century actually may have contributed to a healthier population than in the Old World. While Jamestown’s location on low, mosquito-ridden land was a breeding ground for disease, some studies have found that males in the early New England colonies lived into their 70s and 80s, while those left behind in Great Britain had a life span of only 35. (See the Readers Companion to American History.)


By the late 1700s and early 1800s, epidemics became less isolated, spreading across communities and up and down the East Coast because of river and coastal commerce. In 1793, an influenza epidemic killed 500 people in five counties over a four-week period in Virginia. As cities grew in the 19th century, waterborne and airborne diseases such as cholera and diphtheria appeared. The life expectancy gap between Americans and Europeans closed. Virginia didn’t escape the national and worldwide epidemics of cholera in 1848 and 1865.


In the early 20th century, globalization had already begun and Virginians were among the victims during the worldwide influenza pandemic from 1918–1919 that took 400,000 American lives.


The discovery of sulfa drugs, penicillin and antibiotics in the 1930s and 40s helped curb many infectious diseases, but Virginia still would have to deal with the polio scare of the 1950s. The town of Wytheville’s polio epidemic made national news. Motorists would roll up their windows as they drove through on old Route 11 between Roanoke and Bristol in the hot summer of 1950. (This was before air-conditioned cars.) Families who had lost children to the disease often left the city to avoid infecting their neighbors.


But, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin’s discovery of the polio vaccine stopped the epidemic in its tracks.

Oddly enough, it was the success at combating infectious epidemics that led in part to the next scourge – AIDs in the 1980s. Public health departments were not well funded or staffed because it was thought we had conquered epidemic diseases. While death rates from AIDs began declining in the late 1990s due to more effective treatment, more than 8,300 Virginians had died of the disease by the end of 2003, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


What will be Virginia’s next epidemic? Hard to know, except that its origins will probably be more exotic than the mosquitoes on Jamestown Island.


NEXT: Virginia’s Blue Yonder


-- April 11, 2005












About "Nice & Curious"


In 1691, a group of English wits, calling themselves the Athenian Society, founded a publication entitled, "The Athenian Gazette or Causical Mercury, Resolving All the Most Nice and Curious Questions proposed by the Ingenious." The editors accepted questions posed by readers on any and all topics, and sought the most ingenious answers.


Inspired by their example, Edwin S. Clay III, president of the Virginia Library Association and Director of the Fairfax County Public Library, created an occasional column on Virginia facts that may require "ingenious answers" of the type favored by those 17th-century wags.


If you have a query, e-mail him at [email protected].


Fairfax County Public Library staff Patricia Bangs, Lois Kirkpatrick and MaryAnn Sheehan assist in the writing, editing and research of the column.