By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
In the 19th century a number of epidemics plagued the developing nation here in the United States. Outbreaks of yellow fever, malaria and smallpox impacted the colonies, especially those located, as was New York, near busy seaports engaged in trade and those serving as ports receiving immigrants.
Included among these epidemics were those from the islands of our Southern Hemisphere. Much blame for the spread of these diseases came from our own lack of knowledge of the role of sanitation and suitable living conditions necessary in a crowded city atmosphere.
But there were those who were increasingly concerned, not only in the medical community, but also from other fields of endeavor. Among these was Noah Webster, who worked as a journalist in New York City and became one of our first epidemiologists. His later work in another field, however, was to lead to his fame.
My interest in Webster’s role in epidemiology as early as the late 18th century into the 19th century was piqued by our current concerns with the threat of biological warfare and bio-terrorism.
A contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and President George Washington, Webster was an advanced thinker on all questions and issues of his day. During the period he lived and worked in our city, Webster, an editor of a daily paper, wrote enough to fill 28 volumes, though these writings were never compiled.
There were, however, subjects of interest to him that he felt were not suitable for newspapers to print, and one of these was his interest in epidemiology.
The scourge of his time were the infectious diseases that took so many lives in the 18th and 19th centuries. He had experienced the desperate illnesses of his children when they suffered through scarlet fever and had seen his brother almost die of smallpox when he was in the Army. Yellow fever was a regular threat in almost every colonial city.
Pondering the questions: “What caused these epidemics?” and “What treatment should be accorded them?” led him to learn more about why there were disagreements among doctors about the causes and treatments of these diseases. He pursued his efforts to learn more about these ongoing epidemics, always questioning.
Disheartened by the words he wrote daily for his newspaper, which soon became obsolete, he wanted instead to gather and preserve his findings in a book. For this reason he resigned his post as editor and moved his family to New Haven, Conn.
Two years later he produced two large volumes on infectious diseases. He continued to write to doctors, asking pertinent questions about atmosphere, climate, geography, treatments and their opinions on causes.
It was known that epidemics of smallpox in the Caribbean Islands spread to our shores, and one of these, notably in 1751, caused a serious case of smallpox in then future President Washington.
While researching for his volumes on infectious disease, Webster turned to the best English dictionary of the day, published in 1755 by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Like other dictionaries of the day, the one Webster used had many errors, and his searches in all the famous libraries at Yale, Philadelphia, New York and Boston failed to provide the scientific words he needed.
By the year 1800, Webster was proficient in 12 languages and consulted books and dictionaries in those languages as well. He knew that he must write a good dictionary of the English language as his life’s work.
This task took him 20 years, and he completed a dictionary that was completely American in spelling and pronunciation. He introduced to the world such homespun words as “whittle,” “tackle,” “shaver” and “chore.”
In 1811, after decades of yellow fever epidemics, the New York Assembly commissioned “the laying out of streets in a way to promote health in the city and free and abundant circulation.” In the yellow fever epidemic in New York City in 1822, the disease penetrated not only the poorer sections of the city but broke out in the so-called “stylish” section inhabited by the rich.
The municipal government declared everything below City Hall an infected district. As a result, Brooklyn received an influx of the well-to-do, enabled by the ferry that plied between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Brooklyn Heights experienced a real estate boom, and by 1839, Brooklyn became the first commuter suburb of Manhattan. As in earlier times, epidemics impacted the social, economic and political life of our city.
Webster will be remembered as an early — if not the first — epidemiologist of our nation, though it is his dictionary that has defined his fame. The value of his work as a record of direct observation of epidemic diseases in our country should not be forgotten.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and free-lance writer.