At the tail end of the 19th century, Miami was a healthy city, nearly doubling its population each year since the railroad had come in. Then the fever came. From the first rumours of an outbreak in Key West, Miami was on high alert: yellow fever was the scourge of cities at the time, especially those on the edge of the tropics. So when one recent emigre was diagnosed with yellow fever, everyone knew what it meant.
As more cases were confirmed positive, the nascent city was in a panic. Miami’s first doctors, racing to prevent the spread, were eventually compelled to institute a quarantine. For weeks, only a select few – the Immunes – could enter or leave the city. Armed guards patrolled the perimeter of the city and manned makeshift guard towers. Meanwhile, the besieged residents could only read the list of victims posted outside the drugstore and pray they avoided the same fate.
Very little was known about the causes and treatment of yellow fever at the time, leading to remedies of dubious efficacy, including whiskey enemas to cocaine. For better or worse, Miami would be one of the last cities to enjoy those treatments. A scientific commission identified the root cause of yellow fever the following year and a vaccine was developed several decades later. Still, the disease remains endemic in much of Africa and South America.
- Yellow Fever at Miami – The Epidemic of 1899; 1995 Tequesta article by William M Straight, MD
- James M Jackson Jr – Miami’s First Physician; a 1975 journal piece by Dr Straight about the life and practice of Dr Jackson
- The Great Plague; PBS documentary from its American Experience series about yellow fever, including an informative website
Biscayne Tales is a podcast about the history of Miami and South Florida. We hope that the episodes will appeal to Miami residents and visitors alike, encouraging them to start their own exploration of the city's people and places. This website is intended to accompany the show and provide additional materials and links for the curious.
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