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From malaria to coronavirus: What Pensacola history has taught us about disease outbreaks

PNJ.com (Pensacola) logo PNJ.com (Pensacola) 3/22/2020 John Appleyard, Pensacola History
a sign in front of a brick building: Message to Pensacola from Vinyl Music Hall Saturday, March 21, 2020. © John Blackie/jblackie@pnj.com Message to Pensacola from Vinyl Music Hall Saturday, March 21, 2020.

As medical authorities study and seek to halt the current spread of the coronavirus, it should be noted that such epidemics are not new to this area. The climate itself has played its role in fostering certain health care problems, and in the period 1825 to 1860, the military garrisons here often were stricken with malaria, and then with yellow fever. The later was a problem which resurfaced locally several times and brought death to many. 

Prior to the 20th century, the causes of such fever problems often were mysteries, and treatments were primitive. Scanning health care histories and examining tales of treatments in Pensacola, early efforts at hospital care illustrated that this area, like many in the South, was stricken by diseases that came on quickly, remained for days and which in those times had little medical understanding. History contains many illustrations of such problems and in many nations. 

Pensacola, with its unique climate status, has from its early history seen the onset of diseases which might be readily passed from person to person. In days past, there were many treated from what became labeled as malaria, then some time later came the newly named problem of yellow fever.

More from Mr. Appleyard:

► What naturalist William Bartram observed about Pensacola 

► What's the deal with the old chimney on Scenic Highway?

​​​​​​​► Don Francisco Moreno shaped Pensacola's rich Spanish heritage

The onset of that fever was seen here in large victim numbers even before the Civil War, and as men were grouped in numbers, often under unsanitary circumstances, that fever became a concern, not every year, but often. Once the regional railroad was completed in its route across the Panhandle, the fever was often spread more readily, for often a single infected passenger might bring troubles to a trainload of potentials, especially as women increased in the boarded travelers. Into a new century, news coverage details numbers of men, women and children being stricken. Today's coverage pinpoints the term virus, which may have been part of the concerns as they surfaced 100 years ago.

Happily, medical scientists have brought answers to fever causes as they have worked following 1870. Yet there is interesting data which shows how prevalent the fever was locally before and after 1860. Yellow fever epidemics (some with over 200 measured deaths locally) came in those times, providing a grave challenge for the men and women of medicine. From 1830 to the end of the War Between the States, there were seven summers identified as having what today would be termed epidemics.The fever came, was transmitted along travelers' routes and continued for months, since until 1905, there was no effective treatment.

​​​​​​​► What Pensacola learned about epidemics from its battle with yellow fever 

​​​​​​​► Jumping back a century, what was Pensacola like in the 1920s? 

With what our nation's people now are suffering in virus risings, it does help place these earlier times in the pages of health care history. From time after time, such problems have come, often with little understanding (then or later) of what the causes may have been. However, it is interesting that back 75 years, this area's dean of health care, Walter C. Payne, often was quoted, to his fellow practitioners and to the public, providing the same types of advice that is forthcoming from medics today. Careful separation of persons can be the primary preventive. 

Yes, 200 years ago, Chinese philosophers, dealing with waves of illness, provided the same counsel. Avoiding presence of audiences of size can be one's best safeguard. Such advice is difficult to follow yet it makes sense. This is what wise leaders of some of the area's group organizations are doing by postponing meetings or finding alternatives. When the experts note that such problems may result from one-on-one contact, they provide wise counsel. From generation to generation, that advice has passed. Such thoughts are as valid in 2020 as they were when they were first uttered.

John Appleyard is a Pensacola historian and writes a weekly historical column in the Pensacola News Journal. His 15-minute films about Pensacola are viewable, without charge, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday in The Cottage, 213 E. Zaragoza St.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: From malaria to coronavirus: What Pensacola history has taught us about disease outbreaks

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