Wednesday, February 6, 2013

It Could Be Worse!

A blog post by Carmen Doyle

There has been a lot of worry in the news lately about the flu pandemic. People with coughs or fevers are being urged to stay home.

Staying healthy has always been a worry. However, Fort Wayne has experienced much worse illnesses in its history than this season’s flu. In 1849, then again in 1852 and 1854, Fort Wayne residents suffered from cholera. By the time the cholera epidemics were through, 600 deaths were reported. According to the Allen County Health Department’s website, there were two deaths in 2012 from the flu.

The Fort Wayne Board of Health was started in 1842. When cholera first approached Fort Wayne in 1849, the Board of Health reacted by authorizing two people as deputies from each of the six wards in the city. The deputies’ job was to visit any place- not just homes and businesses, but also yards and alleys- where disease could be spread. The deputies had the power to remove anybody infected with the disease for the safety of the other inhabitants.

St. Augustine’s Academy, which later became the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, was offered as a temporary hospital and the Sisters of Providence as nurses. The 1849 cholera epidemic lasted only a few months, from July to October. One undertaker, Louis Peltier, made many of the coffins, “rough affairs, made hurriedly and from any kind of timber that could be gotten. The lids were nailed down with heavy wrought iron nails, and the coffins were hauled to the cemetery on ordinary farm wagons”. Almost as soon as the 1849 cholera epidemic ended, it seemed as if Fort Wayne had forgotten about it, according to Charles Beecher, a one-time Fort Wayne Presbyterian minister and author.  

In 1852 and 1854, cholera came back and again the Sisters of Providence volunteered as nurses. Two of the Sisters died as a result of nursing cholera victims. A hospital was established at a county farm and a house at the corner of Calhoun and Berry donated by James Barnett (who was Sam Hanna’s brother in-law) was also used for cholera sufferers. One resident many years later recalled watching numerous funerals at the nearby Methodist church.

Medicine has also improved greatly since the cholera epidemics. Griswold, in his Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, describes some of the ways Fort Wayne residents tried to recover from cholera. One doctor is quoted as recommending, “Tremendous doses of calomel, the panacea of that age, and cayenne pepper.” (Calomel is a colorless and tasteless white or brown compound used as a purgative and an insecticide.) Alcohol was also believed to be a beneficial medicine. Officials did realize the health risks of wastewater and the value of removing it. (The latest issue of the Old Fort News contains an article about the health benefits beer was claimed to have as “water frequently carried dread disease”.) 

The next time somebody complains about how sick they are with the flu, tell them it could be much worse- it could be cholera!

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