Sunday, August 28, 2011

Still Waiting for Carlos Finlay

Adult Yellow Fever Mosquito

Cousins, our ancestor William Grant's death was evidence in the heated debate over whether yellow fever was spread by contagion or by miasma. The argument was fueled by economic interest as well as by medicos defending their dogma. Where the contagion faction prevailed, quarantines and consequent trade disruption followed. One expert arguing for miasma was Dr. Musgrave of Angtigua in the West Indies.

To bolster his argument (and unwittingly to flesh out our family story) Dr. Musgrave includes an appendix with the report of Dr. Hartle, the Navy medical officer on shore in Antigua when the Pyramus landed with its crew of yellow fever victims early on the first of November 1821.

“I immediately went on board, and was surprised to find that an officer (lieutenant) had died the day before with only a few hours illness—that the purser [Eliza Esdaile's son-in-law William Grant, though he is never named in this article] and six men lay dangerously ill. . .”

The ship’s surgeon was ill himself, so a loblolly boy had attended them. “He had bled them, and given them some cathartic medicine, but it did not appear to me that the bleeding had been either to a sufficient extent or from a proper orifice, and unfortunately , the time for its repetition was passed as the disease was in its second stage. To this, therefore I attribute the misfortune of losing the three first attacked, (purser and two of the men) for organic derangement had already taken place.”

“The purser had nausea but no vomiting; he bled profusely from the nose, and, a little before he died, he passed, involuntarily, a large quantity of black fetid blood, per anum.”

People by the dozens kept getting yellow fever on the Pyramus.  On inspection, the Pyramus looked like a nice clean ship, but Dr. Hartel, suspecting miasma, had the limber boards pulled up. Underneath was rotting wood debris from a refitting job done at Portsmouth just before the ship left port. The wood scraps mixed with coal tar had clogged the limber holes, leaving nine inches of stagnant water and muck that couldn’t reach the pump wells. The stench was horrific, not possible to describe. Everyone involved in the inspection and subsequent clean up, including  Dr. Hartel and, remarkably, even some black men, became ill. Yet nobody on shore caught yellow fever. This proved that miasma caused yellow fever. At least it proved it to Dr. Musgrave of Antigua. 

You can follow the yellow fever controversy as it unfolded using Google Books.  This blog post is from:
Musgrave, Anthony.  Facts and Observations in Refutation of Sir Gilbert Blane’s  Doctrines as to the contagious Nature of Yellow Fever. The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Medical Science Quarterly , Volume IV, No 16  (March 1824) p. 979. (Available on Google Books)

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