Dr. Tim Lockley, University of Warwick – Savannah and Yellow Fever

Oct 15, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Tim Lockley of the University of Warwick explains why nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemics hit some segments of Savannah’s population harder than others.

Tim Lockley is Reader in American Studies at the University of Warwick where his teaching and research interests include colonial and antebellum North America, with a particular focus on slavery and the South. He has written and edited a number of books, including 2009’s Welfare and Charity and the Antebellum South. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.

About Dr. Lockley

Dr. Tim Lockley – Savannah and Yellow Fever

Savannah’s yellow fever epidemic in 1854 claimed 650 lives but its impact was not spread evenly among the population. Two-thirds of the dead were young male immigrants, often from Ireland, and while contemporaries were happy to blame high immigrant mortality on the dissolute lifestyles of the poor, the real reasons were more complex.

About a third of Savannah’s population was black in 1854, but genetic protections ensured that mortality among the enslaved was very low. Children accounted for about a quarter of the white population, but yellow fever is normally a mild disease among the young. Some locally born adults would have been immune due to a childhood infection, but not many, as Savannah had only had one previous epidemic in 1820.

The yellow fever mosquito, Aedes Aegypti, is active during the day, targeting those working outside such as labourers and artisans. Three-quarters of victims were male most likely because few women worked outside in the heat of a Savannah summer. Mosquito populations were also highest in the swampy areas close to the eastern and western suburbs of Savannah popular with immigrants due to low cost housing.

As city officials became aware of the existence of the epidemic the news was managed to enable the wealthy to leave before the disease spread. More than half of the white population fled, but those without means to travel or a place to go, mainly poorer whites and the enslaved, were left behind.

The death toll among Savannah’s immigrants was therefore high partly because they lacked any immunity to yellow fever, but mainly because the accident of where and how they lived and worked exposed them to a high level of infection.