J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

The Influenza Epidemic of 1760

Yesterday I quoted Dr. Ernest Caulfield on the dysentery epidemic of late 1775.

Caulfield wrote a few years later on influenza epidemics in colonial New England. Not only did the British subjects of that time not understand the disease, they didn’t even have a name for it:
That name, influenza, coined by the Italians to signify the influence of celestial bodies on man’s affairs, was first used in England during the epidemic of 1743, but was not used in this country, so far as I could determine, until after the Revolution. The colonial epidemics when given definite names at all were usually called “uncommon colds,” “very deep colds,” “pleuritic fever,” or “malignant pleurisy.” . . .

Although influenza attacked all age groups children withstood it much better than adults, for statistics when available usually show that adults comprise about two-thirds of the total deaths. During many colonial epidemics the fact was stressed that this disease was unusually fatal to those in the prime of life, the group that was expected to withstand epidemic diseases best of all. . . .

It is generally accepted among medical historians that severe influenza spread throughout most of the country during the winter and spring of 1760-1761. Early in September, 1760, rumors had reached the country towns that as many as twenty persons were dying in Boston daily, but the News-Letter of September 11, in denying such stories, said that there were not twenty deaths a week, yet acknowledged the prevalence of two diseases, the bloody flux and colds.

Various sources indicate that by late September “Great Colds” were prevalent throughout Massachusetts, and October was “a tedious Time for Colds and Caughs” among the Massachusetts men in the camps around Ticonderoga.
British forces had just taken that fort from the French the previous year.
The New London Summary (February 20, 1761) said that “Great Colds” had prevailed in Connecticut throughout the autumn. The first indication of severe influenza was the outbreak which began in Bethlehem, Connecticut, that November and caused 34 deaths, five of them in the home of Dr. Zephaniah Hull.

“During this epidemic, a flock of quails flew over the chimney of a house, in which were several diseased persons, and five of them [meaning quails, I presume] fell dead on the spot.” [Noah] Webster thought that this was natural in view of the concentration of infected air.
People still had a lot to learn about disease.

Dr. Caulfield published this study in the April 1950 issue of the American Antiquarian Society Proceedings (P.D.F. download).

1 comment:

Mark said...

They may have been hideously ignorant of such maladies in the 1760's, but by the 1820's the medical profession was starting to gain an appreciation for these sicknesses. In 1827 there was a Smallpox epidemic that was hitting parts of New England, and especially Halifax, and it is apparent that doctors were becoming aware of many of the related issues. In 1827 the chief medical officer in Halifax wrote an incredible letter to Dr. Warren in Boston, giving a survey of the Smallpox devastation in Halifax. In it, he highlights issues like the value of a vaccine, how the marginalized of society are the hardest hit and how some of the afflicted did not build immunity & got sick twice, etc.. Fascinating read, and a more advanced discussion than we might imagine for 200 yrs ago....