“Genesee Fever” and other Illnesses in Early Rochester

One of the greatest hardships to be overcome in early Rochester was illness. We have already seen how the building of Hamlet Scrantom’s first home was delayed because its construction crew fell ill. This was no doubt due to “Genesee fever,” a common umbrella term for a variety of maladies that came with accompanying fevers. Most likely the cause was either typhoid or malaria.

In April and May 1812 (the time was Scrantom was moving to his new home) typhoid was making an appearance in the Genesee Country. Later that summer, dysentery was common. The following year, typhoid recurred, affecting principally the lungs and the brain of those afflicted. As terrible as that sounds, the latter condition was commonly less fatal than typhoid, which affected the throat alone. Symptoms included chills, pain in the head, back, loins and side; and coughing up blood.

By 1820, other illnesses had made their way to the area. These included pleurisy (a form of pneumonia involving inflammation of the lining between the lungs and the chest wall), measles, whooping cough and a reappearance of dysentery.  Tuberculosis (then known as “consumption” or “the King of Terrors”) was a common visitor. So too was smallpox (despite the fact that even then a vaccine was available).

Genesee Fever-cholera

1832 Handbill for preventing Cholera

The aforementioned illnesses affected individuals, rather than the community as a whole. The first major ailment commonly seen as an epidemic occurred in 1832, when Rochester was visited by cholera. Death was a common result. In the first few months of the epidemic, 57 people died of the disease, and in July of that year, 11 deaths were reported in one day alone. The same thing happened in August. Infants and children were common victims. One thousand people (10% of the population) fled the village to avoid the disease, and those with nowhere to go locked themselves in their homes. Normal village life temporarily came to a stop. By the time the scourge had passed in September, 400 cases had been reported and 118 deaths had been attributed to the disease.

Medical practice at the time was rather primitive, and by modern standards almost barbaric. Bleeding was not uncommon. Bleeding involved opening a vein in the forearm or neck (either with a needle or leeches) and releasing enough blood until the patient fainted. Another common treatment was administering an emetic (a substance to induce vomiting) or a laxative. One did not want to have to be under a doctor’s care in early Rochester!

Before the advent of modern medicines and vaccines, the most effective method for dealing with illness was prevention. The marshy land around the village was drained (depriving mosquitos of breeding grounds). Strict ordinances governing trash and latrines were imposed. When individual cases of communicable diseases were uncovered, the person was “quarantined” in an isolated house away from the village. Concerns about the local water supply were addressed by public support for digging private wells. Despite these precautions, cholera and other diseases continued to be a frequent visitor to Rochester until the 20th century.

Christopher Brennan

Published in: on May 9, 2017 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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