Yellow Fever Of 1793 vs Covid 19: How They Compare

Everything 18th Century | A Column by Fiona Reichers

Masks, now and then.

The Yellow Fever Epidemic began in October of 1793 in Philadelphia, PA. Vast numbers of people fell violently ill, and ten percent of the city’s population died. Shops, coffee houses, and other businesses were shut down. Many people fled the city for the countryside to escape the chaos. With a pandemic raging in our country yet again, we can draw interesting conclusions when comparing and contrasting the two diseases.

First, let's learn a bit about the illnesses. Yellow Fever is a virus transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Symptoms include fever, headache, jaundice (a condition that causes the skin and/or the whites of the eyes to turn yellow), muscle pain, nausea, vomiting and fatigue.

Covid-19 is an airborne virus that appeared in the United States around January. Although there is widespread speculation, no one quite knows where it came from. Symptoms include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

What’s similar about these two viruses is that they can develop to be very serious and lethal. They may wreak havoc internally, causing significant damage to internal organs, for example by damaging the kidneys, which may sometimes even lead to kidney failure. Yellow Fever also may cause heart and liver problems, as well as internal bleeding in victims. Covid-19 can affect every single part of your body, especially the lungs. Both diseases are especially dangerous to those with preexisting conditions.

Another similarity is the way people protected themselves from the viruses. In 1793, when Yellow Fever broke out in Philadelphia, many people stayed home, similar to our current quarantines. Colonists also covered their faces with rags soaked in vinegar, kind of like masks we wear today. Why did they soak rags in vinegar? Before it was known that mosquitoes caused Yellow Fever, many colonists thought that the virus was airborne, so when they came into contact with people, they would've gotten the virus. Vinegar has disinfecting properties and, combined with a face covering, would have offered some protection.

Also, both viruses were spread by travelers coming to the United States. In 1793, refugees from the Caribbean fled to Philadelphia. At the time, the Caribbean was going through its own Yellow Fever epidemic. Today, infected travelers from viral hotspots came to the U.S. and spread the disease unknowingly.

More similarities lie in how these viruses are treated. In 1793, there were two different treatments for Yellow Fever: Dr. Benjamin Rush’s method, which involved blood-letting and purging, and the French Dr. Jean Deveze’s method, which was letting the body rest and drinking lots of fluids. Unfortunately, Dr. Rush’s method didn't work, instead killing a lot of people instead of healing them. Dr. Deveze’s method worked and was used as the years went by. For Covid-19, a similar struggle to find proper care methods emerged in the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, doctors have settled on ordering patients to stay at home and rest, monitor their symptoms carefully, drink a lot of fluids, and stay in a specific room away from other people. These are similar to Deveze's methods.

Neither disease had a vaccine during the worst parts of crisis. There was no vaccine for Yellow Fever until 1951 when Max Theiler of the Rockefeller Foundation discovered one and received a Nobel Prize for his work. A Covid-19 vaccine will perhaps make history with its speed of development. However, no vaccine is available yet.

During the Yellow Fever epidemic, many people packed up and left Philadelphia to go live in the countryside, much like people today. For example, many New York City residents moved to Long Island and upstate New York. This modern exodus is far more dangerous, because instead of merely escaping mosquitoes, travelers are actively spreading the virus as they move.

Both diseases impacted a lot of people’s pocketbooks. In 1793, many people lost huge amounts of money and were forced to close down their businesses. Some people refused to continue working out of fear. Many farmers refused to grow crops for the city, so the food markets closed down. Now, many small businesses and big box stores like Pier 1 Imports, Gap, and JC Penney, have had to close down locations because they were not getting enough money. Many people in both epidemics suffered financially, leading to a rise in homelessness and hunger. The economic downfall overall continues in the U.S.

It is important to note that Yellow Fever is not airborne. Covid-19 is and that’s why this virus is even scarier. Another difference is that Yellow Fever is an epidemic and Covid-19 is a pandemic. Not sure the difference between the two? An epidemic is a widespread occurrence of a disease in a community. A pandemic is a widespread occurrence of a disease around the world—yes, the whole entire planet!

The weather affected each disease differently. Yellow Fever started in the summer and ended in the winter. This occurred because mosquitoes are really active in warmer weather, and slowly die off in the colder weather. Although originally some hoped weather would impact Covid-19, this is not the case. Neither warm or cold weather appears to have had much impact on the virus, although during colder months the spread can be more serious due to indoor gatherings. The only way to get rid of Covid-19 will be vaccination!

A lot of people died during both the Yellow Fever and Covid-19 epidemics/pandemics. By the time Yellow Fever ended, 5,000 people were dead. On the first day of the epidemic on October 11th, 1793, 100 people died. Today, with Covid-19, over tens of thousands of people died over a four month period. Yellow Fever is still around today, but it only occurs in impoverished third-world countries. Covid-19 is rampaging across the U.S. and the numbers are increasing again, so remember to wear your mask when around people and stay 6-feet apart!

Works Cited:

Learn more at

Yellow fever and Max Theiler: the only Nobel Prize for a virus ... › pmc › articles › PMC2118520

Yellow fever - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic › symptoms-causes › syc-20353045

1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic - Wikipedia › wiki › 1793_Philadelphia_yellow_fev...

Fiona L. Reichers

Fiona, a sophomore, loves to write, paint, and sew 18th century gowns. A history buff and art fanatic, she plans to make a whole wardrobe by graduation, and likes conveying her personality with words.

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