Last Updated 27 Jan 2021

Epidemics in Colonial America

Category Disease, Epidemiology
Words 1445 (5 pages)

John Duffy, a true historian, contributed immensely to the history of medicine by publishing his research in the form of his first book ‘Epidemics in Colonial America. ’ Duffy continued to write other books as well but this particular one stood as a landmark in his career, facilitating all those interested in the field of medicine. In writing this book, Duffy’s primary goal was to clarify epidemic diseases in order of importance and show their direct and indirect effects on colonial development.

He showed how the health environment is important for economic outcomes and that there is a direct effect of health conditions on income and an indirect effect on institutions. There is clearly no ‘hidden’ goal or aim of the author and whatever he has intended to show is pretty apparent and understandable. His book is more on the lines of medical history/ economic impact and is more descriptive and explanatory than theoretical.

‘Epidemics in Colonial America’ provides, in detail, the history of disease epidemics in America and guides the reader through the years of epidemics to show how the outbreak of various diseases effected the development of colonial America. The book explains how epidemic diseases have been affected, and vice verse, have affected the isolation of rural societies, changing economic conditions, varied work conditions and the factors determining poverty and wealth. Body

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The seventeenth century is identified as the period when epidemics were fairly limited in their impact as the interaction between the people of different colonies was minimum and communities were more isolated than they would be in the future. As a result any disease would remain localized to the people of a particular community and not become an epidemic. However, the situation progressively changed by the end of the eighteenth century when there was more commercialized activity/economy. The increased mobility and urbanization led to a greater threat of epidemics spreading from the rural areas.

The situation obviously worsened by the end of the nineteenth century as mobility was further improved and there was increased urbanization. The poor urban centers began experiencing high death rates from diseases like cholera, tuberculosis etc that were endemic in cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Yellow Fever, Smallpox, malaria, hookworm infection, beri-beri, Typhoid and Dysentry, and Idiocy are amongst the epidemic diseases in colonial America. The detail of each, along with its effects has been given in the book.

The impact of the mosquito borne diseases, Yellow fever and malaria, was greater on the colonists of Jamestown as compared to that in New England. Yellow Fever came from Barbados and spread in Philadelphia and New York, and later on in Boston. Thousands of people fell victim to the disease and several left afflicted areas. As is the case with other epidemics, business activity came to a standstill, unemployment rose along with the death rate. People who chose to stay in the afflicted areas had to take severe precautionary measures, but to little effect.

They would shut themselves in their homes and keep the sick isolated from the rest in mosquito nets. The period of the disease is almost one week, by the end of which the person either dies or recovers and becomes immune to it. However, the instances of recovery were little and as history tells us, several hours of work had to be put in just to bury the dead. The Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793 killed around 5,000 people in Philadelphia, which is approximately 10% of its population.

Moving on, Small Pox was introduced in America by the European colonists and effected the native Americans the most as they had little immunity to the disease because of having very little or no exposure to it. The entire native American population was swept off by the disease and as Duffy quotes a letter by a South Carolina resident in his book which says that Small Pox swept away a whole neighboring [Indian] nation, all to 5 or 6 which ran away and left their dead unburied. In the book, Duffy also describes it by saying that the epidemic in 1738 killed one half of the Cherokee Indians near Charleston.

The effect of such an epidemic was reduced resistance to western expansion in the U. S. In another reported incident, some U. S Army men distributed blankets that had been used by smallpox and measles victims, to Indian tribes that also immediately fell prey to the diseases. The small pox epidemic was this disastrous because of its highly contagious nature and the fact that it spreads through even minimum human contact. It can choke the nostrils and also cause blindness. Prevention efforts were made by colonists who tried using isolation and inoculation, a controversial procedure introduced in Boston in 1721.

The patient was injected with a mild form of the disease for a short while to create immunity and antibodies to counter the virus. As a result, a person would get the disease for a shorter while as compared to if they had gotten the disease naturally. A more crude form of this procedure was practiced by the African Americans and was called ‘variolation. ’ The practice consisted of transferring the pus or the scabs from the wounds of the already-affected people and injecting them in the open wounds of unaffected people in order to create immunity.

Malaria was also one of the epidemics in the U. S. It became one of the significant diseases of the colonial times as it spread from Maryland to Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Mexico. The mosquito parasite began spreading faster a s virgin soil was introduced in Carolina and the Blacks were available as victims for the mosquitoes. The parasite then gradually spread to the whites and eventually became an epidemic. The Hookworm infection was another one of the diseases, starting from Florida and Louisiana.

The Hookworm parasite spread through the moist soils from Virginia and just like Malaria, the Native American slaves were its carriers. The Beri-Beri disease, a simple deficiency of vitamin B, on the other hand was curable to a great extent. One of the most widely spread diseases, Tuberculosis, remained a highlight of the nineteenth century as it became very common amongst the people of rural areas and also the poor people of urban areas. Its airborne nature accounted for the high number of people who were affected by the disease and it took several decades for doctors to come up with a counter to this disease.

Duffy’s book mentions other diseases and their effects on America as well but the ones mentioned above were the most significant ones. They hold great importance in maki9ng the present what it is today as they left a lot for the human race to learn from in terms of medical advances. Conclusion The outbreaks of epidemics not only affected the western expansion but also halted the functioning of many cities in America. People were unwilling to work at the risk of their health and lives and therefore businesses and industries collapsed as unemployment rose.

The economy fell and people preferred staying indoors to protect themselves. Education, industry, economy, agriculture and every other structure fell prey to the epidemics that hit the U. S. Local outbreaks became epidemics of a national nature as the transport systems developed and coastal trade began. The nineteenth century saw water and airborne diseases spreading throughout the U. S as poor sewage systems, dirty drinking water and poor food quality etc added to the spread. Eventually, the life expectancy of an average American greatly fell.

On a more positive note, these epidemics had a great lesson to teach as far as the knowledge of medicine is concerned. It helped modern medicine develop into what it is today and facilitated doctors dealing with patients suffering from similar diseases to a great extent. Even though these disease were thought as a punishment for the sins that had been committed by the people, its positive aspect should not be ignored. ‘Epidemics in Colonial America’ is a significant addition to the literature of medicine and the efforts of John Duffy should be recognized for the immense help that they are.

Duffy has remained successful in his attempts of creating awareness regarding the diseases that have struck colonial America in the past and has effectively shown their effects on the people, their incomes, the environment and the development of the United States. The details in the book help paint a fairly adequate picture of the colonial years and make it easy for one to imagine the magnitude of the diseases that occurred. Therefore, it is safe to say that Duffy succeeded in his efforts and should be remembered for them.


Duffy, John. Epidemics in Colonial America. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1953.

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