Archive for April, 2008

A Whole Family Swept Off

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

New York’s 1832 cholera epidemic centered on the built-up tip of southern Manhattan Island, but the 1849 outbreak reached even outlying areas. In the rural town of Gravesend, Long Island (today a neighborhood in southern Brooklyn), one farmer and his entire family—his mother, wife, and children—died in the span of six days. Ferdinand Van Sicklen’s wife, Eleanor/Ellen (Stoothoff) Van Sicklen died on August 18, 1849. His son, Cornelius, died the same day. His mother, Maria (Johnson) Van Sicklen, died on the 21st. Ferdinand died on the 23rd, followed by his married daughter, Eleanor/Ellen Maria (Van Sicklen) Stillwell. (All lie buried in the landmarked Van Sicklen Family Cemetery on Gravesend Neck Road in Brooklyn.) While the accompanying account from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Saturday, August 25, 1849 misspells the family’s surname and takes much poetic license (Ferdinand in fact died of cholera and not from despair), it illustrates vividly the frightening speed at which the disease claimed victims.




Padre Félix Varela, Social Reformer

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Portrait of Father Félix Varela (1788–1853), Frontispiece from José Ignacio Rodriguez, Vida del Presbitero Don Félix Varela (Nueva York: Impresta de “O Novo Mundo,” 1878)

While many Protestant clergymen fled to safety during New York’s 1832 cholera epidemic, their Catholic colleagues remained and actively ministered to the sick and dying. Preeminent among these clerics was Father Félix Varela (1788-1853), who was said to have “lived in the hospitals.” The risks of such work were extreme – in the Greenwich Street hospital fourteen of the sixteen nurses died.  This heroism eased, if only temporarily, the blatant anti-Catholicism of many in the Protestant majority.

Félix Varela (declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in 2003) was born in Havana and early on chose a religious, albeit intellectual, life during a period when the city’s liberal bishop promulgated many health and educational reforms. Father Varela taught and published widely on philosophy, the sciences and law at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, before being appointed a Cuban representative to the Cortes, the Spanish legislature. After promulgating many liberal causes, including Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery, he was declared guilty of treason and driven into exile in New York. There, in a period of ethnic divisiveness the local, predominantly Irish, Catholics treated Varela as a saint because of his intense devotion to the poor. Varela worked hard to build bridges not only between the many nationalities represented in New York’s Catholic community, but also with his Protestant colleagues in the ministry. His multi-cultural legacy lives on in the primarily Chinese congregation of the Church of the Transfiguration, founded by him in 1836. In 1997 the US Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor entitled “Padre Félix Varela, Social Reformer.”

Faces of Cholera: “M.W.” or “N.W.”

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Image and case study from Horatio Bartley, Illustrations of Cholera Asphyxia in its Different Stages, Selected From Cases Treated at the Cholera Hospital, Rivington Street (New York: S.H. Jackson, 1832). The initials on the image and case study differ slightly, but this is probably a typographical error.


“N.W. Born in New-York, live in Goeric [Goerck] street; intemperate. Admitted at 12 o’clock, August 2d. was attacked with diarrhea and vomiting on the 31st July, had cramps last evening, secretion of urin scanty, surface of body warm, great pain in the head; tongue slightly furred. Was cupped on the temples and put under medical treatment. 5 O’clock P.M. has vomited up to this time every few minutes. Tinct. Camph. and Black Drops, were given to allay the vomiting. One o’clock P.M. has vomited only once since, no passage from the bowels, since admission. Seven o’clock P.M. an injection was given, and one scruple of calomel. August 5th, 2 o’clock P.M. was sent to the Convalescent Hospital, cured.”

Keeping Count

Friday, April 18th, 2008

By July and August 1832, the height of New York’s first cholera epidemic, those untouched by the disease had little to do but watch, wait, and follow its progress. The City’s Board of Health, comprised of the mayor and aldermen, appointed a three-member commission to address the growing crisis. Although powerless against the raging epidemic, this minuscule force proved remarkably efficient at gathering statistics, and issued daily reports announcing the numbers of new cases and deaths since the previous morning, with the addresses where they occurred. The tallies, posted in public places, were eagerly anticipated. As James Riker, Jr. recalled in a memoir of this time, “We scarcely ventured farther than the apothecary’s opposite to obtain drugs, or examine the daily report of deaths by cholera, new cases [of] which Dr. White kept upon [a] playcard [sic] at his door for the accommodation of the neighbors. We watched this bulletin with a good deal of interest.”

One senses the mounting panic generated by these published statistics in a letter written by the printer William S. Bayley, who charted the approaching disease for worried relatives then safely on Long Island (23 July 1832):

On Sunday (yesterday) the Park [City Hall Park] was black with persons anxiously waiting for the day’s report…. It [cholera] has been at No. 5 Walker Street, yesterday No. 9, and there was a case in our block in Church Street. The report to day shows five cases in Walker Street on the other or farther side of the Bowery. In a word, the disease is so completely spread that we were counting yesterday and could not recollect a street in which it had not been with the single exception of Park Place.

The broadside below is the one Bayley read on Sunday 22 July 1832.  Click here to see the portion showing the address 9 Walker Street.


Playing Cholera

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Children find play even in the most tragic events. Many believe the universal nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosey” to have originated in London, where the Great Plague of 1665-66 killed upwards of 75,000 people (“ashes to ashes, we all fall down!”). On Saturday, August 25, 1849 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on local children who responded to that summer’s cholera epidemic by making up a game:


How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

The New York Times today, April 15th, 2008, explores the exhibition, Plague in Gotham! and the Weekend with History session with Dr. David Ho & Dr. Kenneth Jackson, who discussed the connection between the Cholera epidemics of the 19th century and the present-day AIDS epidemic. Reporter John Noble Wilford explores How Epidemics Helped Shape the Modern Metropolis, and science editor David Corcoran talks with co-curator Stephen Edidin about the exhibition in this week’s Science Times podcast.

“Fever in New York” – A N-YHS Weekend with History session featuring Dr. David Ho & Dr. Kenneth Jackson

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

On April 5th, 2008, at a session during the Weekend with History at the New-York Historical Society, Dr. David Ho and Dr. Kenneth Jackson discussed the connection between the Cholera epidemics of the 19th century, and the present-day AIDS epidemic.

Speakers: Dr. David D. Ho, Scientific Director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and Irene Diamond Professor, The Rockefeller University. Dr. Kenneth T. Jackson, Jacques Barzun Professor of History and the Social Sciences and Director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for American History, Columbia University.

(*note* The book Dr. Jackson is referring to in the beginning of the session is Charles E Rosenberg’s The Cholera Years)

Obsolete Medical Terms

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

Ever had a “furuncle”? Perhaps felt a touch of “asthenia”? Or maybe “scrofula”? Like “cholera,” these terms were once commonly used by our ancestors, but are rarely heard today. To find out what they mean, visit this list of archaic medical terms, or this one, or this Glossary of Ancient Diseases.

Faces of Cholera: “J.G.” and “P.S.”

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

By September 1832 some 2,030 patients had been treated in New York City’s cholera hospitals. These public institutions-hastily established because private hospitals refused entry to cholera victims-were makeshift at best: a requisitioned bank, a school, and a windowless workshop into which “winds and rain were freely admitted” before carpenters “could be induced to work among the sick and dying.” Of the 410 patients admitted to the cholera hospital on Rivington Street, 179, or just over 43%, died.

The images below, with their accompanying case studies — two of several from Horatio Bartley’s llustrations of Cholera Asphyxia in its Different Stages, Selected From Cases Treated at the Cholera Hospital, Rivington Street (New York: S.H. Jackson, 1832) — provide a unique view of the plight of those unfortunate enough to have contracted the disease.


“J.G. aged thirty-one, admitted six o’clock, P.M. July 17th, 1832, in the stage of collapse. Was rubbed with camphorated mercurial ointment, until reaction was produced; he was then put under hospital treatment. 22d. Ptyalism [excessive salivation] being induced, was ordered small doses of sulphur, and a wash of the same for the mouth. At six o’clock P.M. diarrhea increasing, was ordered an anodyne enema. He was under medical treatment until 24th, when he died, at three o’clock, P.M.”

Cholera Victim no.8

“P.S. aged 33, intemperate Negro. Admitted 4th of August 8 o’clock P.M. Was attacked with diarrhea and vomiting, 2 days ago. When brought in was cold at the surface; pulseless; hands shriveled; eyes sunken. He underwent medical treatment until 6 o’clock A.M. on the 9th August, and died after an illness of four days and a quarter.”

Spreading the word

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

This broadside announcement reflects the limited extent of medical knowledge of the causes of cholera during the first half of the nineteenth century. Although issued in 1849 during New York’s second cholera epidemic, it is virtually identical to the preventive information circulated in 1832 when the city first encountered the disease.