Monday, November 19, 2012

Typhoid Epidemic of 1899

On November 15, 1899, Linda Tom, a freshman at The State Normal and Industrial College, passed away.  For the past several weeks, she had complained of having a fever, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and general pain in her abdomen. Doctor Anna Gove, the resident physician at the College, would determine that Linda’s death was the result of typhoid fever.  Typhoid fever, according to WedMD, is “an acute illness associated with fever caused by the Salmonella typhi bacteria” which is spread through ingesting contaminated food or water. 

Unfortunately Linda’s death would not be an isolated incident.  Over the next two months, thirteen other students as well as one dormitory matron, would die from the illness.  In addition, over 55 other students would be diagnosed with typhoid fever but would be fortunate enough to recover.  To put some perspective on the severity of the situation, thirteen students was roughly equal to 3% of the student population in 1899.  If 3% of the approximately 18,000 students at UNCG today were to pass away, the number would total around 540 deaths. 

College President Charles D. McIver  and other administrators, struggled mightily to contain the virus and to ensure the continuation of the school. However, in 1899 there was no simple cure for the illness.  The only methods for treating patients and reducing the spread of the virus was to quarantine the sick, disinfect surrounding surfaces, and to provide comforting relief efforts.  One of McIver’s first steps was to close down the school until he felt the disease has been eradicated from the campus.  He then authorized the cleansing of the Brick Dormitory and surrounding buildings to prevent future outbreaks.  This included discarding all of the beds with wooden head and food boards, as well as all mattresses. In addition, all of the woodwork and walls were disinfected using harsh chemical products such as formaldehyde which left a lingering odor.

The financial cost of containing the disease was expensive with repairs and replacements totaling above $8,000.   A recently received $5000 grant from the North Carolina State General Assembly that was supposed to be used to build a much needed new gymnasium was divert to help cover expenses.  As a result, the College went into debt and did not fully recover financially until 1908.

An investigation into what caused the massive outbreak was conducted by the North Carolina Board of Health.  The lead investigator, Dr. Richard H. Lewis, concluded that a central water well located near the Brick Dormitory had become contaminated when sewage leaked into the water from a fractured sewer pipe. As a result of these findings, all three of the water wells on campus were filled in and the College was connected to the City of Greensboro water supply.

 In the United States today, there is very little concern about typhoid fever because of the increase in sanitation standards.  In addition, the treatment for the illness is antibiotics, which can quickly contain the fever and help prevent death. 

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