Author: Addeane S. Caelleigh


The Norfolk and Portsmouth Yellow Fever Epidemic

The yellow fever epidemic that struck Norfolk and Portsmouth in the summer and fall of 1855 was one of the worst in U.S. history. The disease was brought to the prosperous port region in June 1855 by the steamer Benjamin Franklin, which docked in Hampton Roads for repairs after arriving from the West Indies. Yellow fever spread from the dockside tenements occupied by Irish shipyard workers to Norfolk and Portsmouth, becoming epidemic by early August. Thousands became ill and thousands more fled the two cities in a panic, only to be met in many cases with quarantine zones that barred their entry. Life in both cities ground to a halt, with businesses, churches, and markets closed, the harbor shuttered, and the even the newspapers silenced by the death of their proprietors. City government essentially collapsed in the two cities, and the remaining residents survived only because of hastily formed civic aid organizations and outside help. Contributions for the beleaguered residents, as well as doctors and nurses, poured in from around the country. In the end, an estimated 3,000 people died in Norfolk, approximately one-third of the entire population, while upward of 1,000 died in Portsmouth. Neither city would truly recover until the twentieth century.


Influenza Pandemic in Virginia, The (1918–1919)

In 1918–1919 a new and deadly type of influenza spread across the United States and around the world. It raged through Virginia from the autumn of 1918 through the spring of 1919, spreading through cities, small towns, isolated rural areas, and military camps. By the time it waned, the epidemic had claimed the lives of at least 16,000 Virginians. The virus, which probably originated in Kansas, was brought to Virginia by military personnel arriving in the state to take ships to Europe, where World War I (1914–1918) was being fought. From bases such as Camp Lee, near Petersburg, it easily jumped to cities and their civilian populations, causing high fever, nausea, and aches, and often leading to severe pneumonia. Authorities prohibited public gatherings and the Red Cross distributed cloth masks, but viral infections were unknown to medical science at the time and are often untreatable regardless. Doctors and nurses were driven to exhaustion caring for their patients, while in rural areas without access to hospitals the weight of coping fell on family members. Federal and state governments, including in Virginia, generally downplayed the severity of the epidemic so as not to cause panic or a downturn in wartime morale. In Richmond, the city turned an unused high school into a whites-only emergency hospital and later opened one for African Americans. In Charlottesville the schools closed. Because of the Great Depression and World War II (1939–1945), the epidemic faded from public memory until early in the twenty-first century.