Typist wearing flu maskA typist wearing a flu mask in New York City in October 1918. Photo from National Archive

Ever since New York became a state in 1788, New York City has faced numerous epidemics that have endangered much of its population. From the coronavirus to yellow fever outbreaks in 1795, New York City, one of the United States’ largest and most diverse cities, has had to worry about protecting the health of its citizens. The city has learned quite a bit about dealing with epidemics since the late 1700s, but the ride hasn’t been so smooth for New Yorkers over the last 250 years.

1. Yellow Fever

attack on the staten island quarantine hospitalThe quarantine station on Staten Island. Image from New York Public Library.

In August 1793, a yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia, killing around 5,000 residents out of 50,000. By September 1793, more than 20,000 Philadelphia residents fled the city. Benjamin Rush, considered as the founder of American medicine, helped to organize the government response to the Philadelphia epidemic and used bloodletting to treat sick patients. During this time, however, New York had quarantines against refugees and goods from Philadelphia, although New York sent Philadelphia $5000 and food supplies.
However, just two years later in 1795, yellow fever emerged in Manhattan, lasting until 1803. Although yellow fever killed dozens of New Yorkers in the first year, people were reluctant to publicize the epidemic due to fear of business loss and of mass immigration away from New York. Doctors also didn’t initially realize yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes, many hypothesizing it began from rotting coffee or from poor sanitation in slums. In 1798, around 800 people died of yellow fever in New York with a fatality rate without treatment of nearly 50%. In 1805, another 270 people died from yellow fever in New York, even after the epidemic died down.