Smallpox did not exist among the native peoples of the Americas until the Europeans came. When exposed to smallpox, nearly everyone caught the disease, and nearly half of those who caught it died. Native Americans died in heaps, the settlers wrote, leaving villages nothing but piles of bones. In 1738 half of the Cherokee nation succumbed to smallpox.
Smallpox was the first epidemic in Cincinnati in 1791, just a few years after the first settlers of 1788. “Dr. William Burnet Jr. came to Cincinnati in 1790 with a few books and medicines and moved into a cabin on Front Street. He barely had begun practice when in 1791 the smallpox broke out and he fled to New Jersey. He never came back.” In later years there were several other outbreaks. Those who did not die were often left with severe disfiguring scars.
In other parts of the world the practice of inoculating with pus from infected individuals had existed but 1 in 50 died from this procedure. In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English country doctor, noted milkmaids who caught cow-pox from cow’s udders became immune to smallpox. Inoculation with this cowpox became known as vaccination after the Latin word ‘vaccinus’, meaning “of a cow”.
Dr. John Hole, the first doctor to settle in Cincinnati, was later credited with introducing cow-pox vaccination to the area when this knowledge became available. Smallpox survived only in the human body, once every available human was protected by vaccination, smallpox perished.
"John Corbley Jr. was the victim of the 'Cold Plague' of 1814 which carried off more people at the same time, in proportion to the population, than any other sickness that had prevailed in the West." ( The Life and Times of Reverend John Corbley, Murphy, Leola 2nd ed. )
1817-21 BLACK TONGUE
“Joseph Mathews served in the War of 1812, but died around 1820 when a plague known as "black tongue" swept over the Ohio Valley and took away every family member of every generation except two of the parents and nine children.” In some epidemics, black tongue was a common term for diphtheria.
1832 – CHOLERA Also 1834, 1849, 1850, 1852, 1866, 1873.
“The blue cholera, as it was called, overcame people so quickly that they could leave the house for work in the morning pink-cheeked and healthy and be dead by evening. Victims were suddenly struck with horrible cramps, violent vomiting, and diarrhea: their face, hands, and feet shriveled and turned blue-black.”
Although unknown outside India before 1817, cholera has made its way via ships and steamships, to just about every part of the globe. In 1832 it arrived in America by an emigrant ship at Quebec and quickly spread to New York and the Midwest. It arrived in Cincinnati about the 20th of September, and for thirteen months spread its terror everywhere. Within the first month 423 persons had died of this bacterial infection spread by poor sanitation, close contact and contaminated water .
“The city, during the prevalence of this dreadful epidemic, presented a mournful aspect. Thousands of citizens were absent in the country; very many were closely confined by personal affliction or the demands of sick friends; hundreds were numbered among the dead; the transient population had entirely disappeared. All business interests were at a standstill; the city seemed lifeless and property found no sale at even low prices.” In 1849 the cholera again returned - worse than ever. That year 8,500 perished, one in every fourteen citizens.
Tuberculosis existed among Native Americans but did not flourish among fairly healthy people living in scattered small groups. But after Native Americans were moved to crowded reservations, it ran rampant. The same pattern appeared as Cincinnati grew into a flourishing city. The disease was primarily spread by respiratory infection, especially in crowded living conditions. Farmers were not without concerns, however, because milk cattle often became infected and could pass the disease through their milk to humans.
For the most part, people who were sick with tuberculosis of the lungs felt a little sick for years, without being completely bedridden. For this reason, the disease was known as “consumption” or by the name the Greeks gave it, “phthisis”.
Dying went on for years. The thin, flushed, and feverish look usually with a hacking cough and blood-tinged handkerchief. Tuberculosis is stealthy: after it enters a body, the germ will wait as long as it takes, ten days or fifty years, for the moment the host is weak enough to attack. As late as the beginning of the nineteenth century, one quarter of all Europeans died young of tuberculosis.
MALARIA & YELLOW FEVER
Early Cincinnati physician, Dr. Daniel Drake, in his Systematic Treatise on the Principal Diseases of the Interior Valley of North America describes both of these mosquito borne diseases as being found in the Ohio and Mississippi valley basins. Before the settlers, there were many areas of swamps that were later drained for fields. Early physicians did not know the causes of these illnesses but recognized them by their fever patterns and complications. Fevers were classified as intermittent, relapsing, recurrent, autumnal, inflammatory and malignant.
Many senior citizens still remember the common illnesses of their childhood that frequently caused serious illness or death. Diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, polio, tonsillitis, pneumonia and many other illnesses were common causes of death that have been eliminated or treated effectively with immunizations or antibiotics, both of which were not developed until the 1940’s.
Drake, Daniel MD, Physician to the West, Selected Writings of Daniel Drake, 1970, University Press, Lexington, KY.
Drake, Daniel MD, A Systematic Treatise on the Principal Diseases of the Interior Valley of North America, 1850, Cincinnati.
Farrell, Jeanette, Invisible Enemies, Stories of Infectious Disease, 1998, New York, Farrar, ISBN 0-374-33637-7
Goss, Charles F., Cincinnati – The Queen City, 1912,
Leonard, Lewis Alexander, Greater Cincinnati and Its People, 1927, Lewis Publishing, Cincinnati.
Archaic Medical Terms for Genealogists – Multiple internet sites eg. http://www.genproxy.co.uk/old_medical_terms.htm
Compiled by John Tholking MD
Membership in First Families is open to descendants of pioneers who were residents of Hamilton County, OH before December 31, 1820. Pioneers of Hamilton County, Northwest Territory, which included areas of current Ohio, Michigan and Indiana are also eligible.. (See Tracer Vol. 21 #1 2000) Applications or requests for forms may be sent to FFHC, Hamilton County Chapter OGS, PO Box 15865, Cincinnati, OH 45215-0865.