WHAT PAST PHILA. EPIDEMICS CAN TELL US ABOUT THE RESPONSE TO COVID-19
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, communities have come together to take action. Groups around the city, state, and country have stepped up and put their lives on the line for the sick, the hungry, the unemployed, and those who depend on going to work to put food on their table.
After a month after clocking in, employees at Braskem America in Delaware County, Pennsylvania were finally able to go home. More than 40 workers unanimously decided to leave their families, agreeing to eat, sleep and live at the facility where they make equipment for health care workers. The team worked 12-hour shifts. TV and the occasional drive-by from family members were the only outside contact they've had.
The City of Brotherly Love has a long tradition of taking up charitable, selfless causes even in the midst of disease.
1) The Committee at City Hall
The burden of the yellow fever fell on city Almshouse as the institution set up for the care of the poor. As the fortunate left the city for the country, commerce began to atrophy. Suddenly there were scores of the jobless and hungry, more than the city had ever seen. The Overseers and Guardians of the Poor, as they were called, closed the Almshouse to the sick as was normal at the time. The Guardians that remained in the city overtook Bush Hill, an empty estate to house the sick instead.
Facing community resistance and shortened personnel as city and federal government evaporated, Mayor Clarkson called to the citizens of the city to volunteer to aid the three remaining Guardians. These people formed the Committee. The Committee ran Bush Hill, overtook and managed a new orphanage, manged burials and body removals, administered aid to poor, starving, homeless, and old, pushed for the freeing of prisoners and the sanitation of the prisons, as well as countless other odd jobs. The Committee organized the city's response to the epidemic. (6, 9)
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2) Bush Hill
When the Guardians overtook Bush Hill, an empty mansion at the outskirts of the young city for the care of the sick, four American doctors were appointed to visit regularly. However, reports surfaced mere days after the seizure that the doctors did not regularly make the trip, the nurses were unqualified, and the operation was being poorly managed.
Stephen Girard, a French immigrant who soon became the wealthiest person in America, and Peter Helm, a working-class cooper, volunteered through the Committee to manage Bush Hill.
Girard had a refugee doctor, Jean Devèze, appointed to oversee the patients. Girard personally cared for the sick and dying at their bedside and carried out administrative duties. Helm took care of the grounds, maintenance, and burying the dead. They collectively secured beds, built water pumps, housed the workers, and constructed new facilities. The efficiency and care with which Girard and Helm managed Bush Hill undoubtedly saved lives. (6, 9)
3) The Free African Society
Dr. Benjamin Rush, at the start of the yellow fever epidemic, thought that Africans were immune to the pestilence. Word got into the newspapers asking "the people of color to come forward and assist the distressed, perishing, and neglected sick."
Among the most active were Richard Allen, the eventual founder of the AME Church, and Absalom Jones, a clergyman, who were both formerly enslaved and came together to found the Free African Society in 1787.
The Society supplied nurses, supplied workers to transport the sick to Bush Hill, and were trained to procure remedies and carry out Dr. Rush's prescribed bleedings. Allen and Jones personally assisted in gathering the dead and carrying them to the graveyards which they did for free (until a fund was set up expressly for their service).
The heroic acts of the city's Black community were largely unheralded. More than 300 died in the epidemic, roughly at the same rate as whites. They were not immune. (3, 9)
Raphaelle Peale - Delaware Art Museum
The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia
Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo
4) The Lazaretto
Following Philadelphia's devastating yellow fever epidemics in the 1790's, Philadelphia's new Board of Health commissioned the Lazaretto in 1799, the first quarantine hospital in the United States, styled after similar institutions in Europe.
The Lazaretto Quarantine Station was chartered to inspect all incoming ships, passengers, and cargo, disinfecting cargo and vessels and quarantining sick passengers in the hospital if need be. It continued this function until 1895 when the national government assumed responsibility for immigration procedure. The Lazaretto still stands in Tinicum Township.
In 1800, the USS Ganges captured two illegal U.S. slave ships off the coast of Cuba, where they were brought to Philadelphia. The 135 African men, women, and children aboard were quarantined at the Old Lazaretto established in 1793 on Province Island. There they were nursed to health while their legal status was sorted out. The judge freed them, gave them the surname Ganges, and surrendered their custody to the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. (4, 7)
5) The Sisters of Charity
Founded by Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809, the Sisters of Charity, a Catholic order of nuns, was based in Emmitsburg, MD. The order had soon established schools and orphanages in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and NYC.
When cholera took hold at the Almshouse as the disease swept through Philadelphia, the institution fell into disarray. Workers began demanding higher wages, some nurses abandoned their posts or showed up intoxicated, and all the rest broken by fatigue. The Sisters of Charity were appointed by the Sanitary Committee to bring order to the Almshouse. Their assistance was so invaluable that they continued to work at the Almshouse for several months after the end of the outbreak.
When 57 Irish immigrant railroad workers came down with cholera at their camp in Chester Co., the Sisters were called to assist. Despite being shunned by locals (and perhaps violently treated by Nativist locals), the Sisters walked twelve miles out to care for the dying. Within two and a half weeks, all 57 workers died. (11)
The Free Library of Philadelphia
Temple University Libraries: Special Collections Research Center
6) Medico-Chiurgical Hosptial
Isaac Starr, MD recorded his experience as a third-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 1976 when Spanish flu devastated Philadelphia. Because so many of the city's medical personnel were away with the military, med students were needed to staff the hospitals. With only one lecture on influenza, Dr. Starr found himself as head-nurse for his shift in the half-demolished Medico-Chiurgical Hospital that was partially restored as an emergency hospital.
With little oversight, the hospital was quickly filled and overrun with the sick. Many doctors came out of retirement to help, but the number of dead continued to rise: 25% of patients per night at the peak. Bodies were stacked in the cellar to be toted away in trucks. The Sisters of Charity came to help, some experiencing so much emotional trauma they had to be sent home. Dr. Starr recalled patients trying to die by suicide and succumbing to disease in a matter of days. Within 5 weeks, the number of deaths stooped so low, the disease burned so fast, that medical school was reopened. (10)
7) The Seminarians
While pneumonia and influenza took its toll in the hospitals, the scores of dead needed to be buried. The seminarians at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary volunteered at cemeteries and hospitals to alleviate the strained workers there.
At Holy Cross Cemetery, roughly 100 seminarians at a time offered their labor to dig graves and carry out funerals. During the month of October, 3447 bodies were buried at Holy Cross alone. At some point, over 700 bodies were piled up awaiting to be interred. The seminarians, originally digging graves one by one, were forced to excavate huge swatches of land for a mass graves of up to 468 coffins.
The seminarians were met with grisly sights: rotting bodies, bloated with gas (even blowing the lids of their coffins), cheap, quick, homemade coffins, and distraught family members.
One seminarian, Leo Naylor, died of the disease at the Seminary after working at Holy Cross, a testament to the selfless nature of those who volunteered and put their lives on the line. (5)
Seminarians digging graves
Catholic Historical Research Center
Thom Carroll / Philly Voice
8) Gene Editing
AIDS is an ongoing issue in Philadelphia. With a prevalence of around 20,000 persons, the rate of incidence is several times higher in Philly than the national average. To this day, the disease disproportionately affects people of color.
In 2019, in a paper published in Nature Communications, a collaborative team of researchers at the Temple University Lewis Katz School of Medicine and the University of Nebraska Medical Center have developed a gene-editing procedure that shows promise in stymieing, and even eliminating, HIV from living animals.
The procedure employs CRISPR-Cas9, a cutting-edge gene-editing technology derived from bacteria. In conjunction with antiretroviral therapy (ART) that stops HIV from replicating, the team was capable of completely eliminating HIV from the T cells in about one-third of mice. In time, as all clinical tests go, this may show promise in possibly eliminating HIV from humans. (1)
1. “HIV Eliminated from the Genomes of Living Animals.” Lewis Katz School of Medicine, July 2, 2019. https://medicine.temple.edu/news/hiv-eliminated-genomes-living-animals
2. “Pennsylvania workers going home after 28 days making COVID-19 protective gear.” 6abc Philadelphia YouTube, April 20, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Emx3D2C-Ac4
3. Absalom, Jones and Richard Allen. A narrative of the proceedings of the black people, during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia, in the year 1793: and a refutation of some censures, thrown upon them in some late publications. Philadelphia: Printed by William W. Woodward at Franklin’s Head, 1794.
4. Barnes, David S. “Neither Slave Nor Free: the Ganges Africans at the Lazaretto (1800).” University of Pennsylvania. https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~dbarnes/Ganges.html
5. Brennan, Thomas C. “The Story of the Seminarians.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia 30:2 (June, 1919): 115-134.
6. Carey, Mathew. A short account of the malignant fever, lately prevalent in Philadelphia: with a statement of the proceedings that took place on the subject in different parts of the United States. Philadelphia: Printed by author, November 14, 1793.
7. Horowitz-Behrend, Dona. “Lazaretto Quarantine Station.” ushistory.org, May 24, 2007. https://www.ushistory.org/laz/history/ganges.htm
8. McCarthy, Erin. “How to get tested for the coronavirus in the Philadelphia area.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 28, 2020. https://www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/coronavirus-testing-sites-philadelphia-main-line-south-jersey-insurance-20200324.html
9. Powell, J.H. Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
10. Starr, Isaac. “Influenza in 1918: Recollections of the Epidemic in Philadelphia.” Annals of Internal Medicine, July 18, 2006. https://doi.org/10.7326/0003-4819-145-2-200607180-00132
11. Watson, William. “The Sisters of Charity, the 1832 Cholera Epidemic in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut.” U.S. Catholic Historian 27:4 (Fall, 2009): 1-16.