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Rx Newsletter for May 2016


During the 19th Century, late Spring marked the beginning of New Orleans' epidemics season that ran through late October. New Orleans was plagued with an exceptional number of epidemics during the 19th Century. Outbreaks of Yellow Fever, Cholera, and Malaria were common. Pharmacists and physicians attempted to battle these deadly diseases with little success, as their causes were unknown. The citizens of New Orleans became so desensitized to death and disease that the city earned the title, "The City that Care Forgot". But why was New Orleans so prone to outbreaks of epidemic diseases?


1. Location

New Orleans is situated six feet below sea level on the Mississippi River in the midst of vast amounts of swampland. Because of the low elevation and lack of proper drainage in the 19th Century, water would pool and provide increased opportunity for mosquito breeding and the spread of water-borne diseases. In addition, New Orleans is a semi-tropical climate that receives a significant amount of rainfall and harbors a long, humid summer season for disease to thrive.

2. Status as a Port City

New Orleans was a thriving port city in the 19th Century, that received cargo from around the world, including many shipments from tropical regions. Trading ships often brought mosquitos along with their cargo as well as sailors who were already infected with disease. Sailors and cargo that became infected while docked in the city spread epidemics up the Mississippi River to Northern ports. Being a burgeoning center for trade and prosperity, New Orleans also attracted a large immigrant population. These newcomers were not seasoned to the ravishes of Yellow Fever through prior exposure. Many newcomers were poor and lived in overcrowded shacks along the riverfront, leading to unsanitary conditions and the spread of Cholera.

3. Substandard Sanitation

19th Century dirt roads did not drain effectively and created pools for breeding mosquitoes. Citizens collected rainwater in cisterns as their main water supply; each house was thus equipped with its own mosquito breeding ground. Sewage and chamber posts were often emptied directly into the streets, and to compound the problem, animals roamed freely through the city depositing more waste. The general lack of sanitation in New Orleans contributed to not only the spread of epidemics, but also the bacteria that cause dysentery and intestinal problems.

4. 19th Century Society and the Media

The majority of the upper class citizens of New Orleans fled the city during the summer months to live at country homes or resorts. This exodus would often include the city officials who were responsible for informing the public in times of epidemic and deciding what course to take in providing relief and medicine to those suffering with disease. The Summertime epidemics were seen by many people as a means to cleanse the population of the undesirable poor who could not afford to leave. Furthermore, because the ecomony of the city relied mainly on trade, newspapers were reluctant to print the presence of an epidemic. Newspapers across the US would report sickness in New Orleans before the local papers would mention an epidemic. The uninformed public was unable to take any precautionary measures to prevent the spread of disease and many people were stricken unaware.

5. General Lack of Medical Knowledge

Although the 19th Century was a time of great medical advances, pharmacists and physicians were baffled by the causes of epidemic diseases until almost the beginning of the 20th Century.


* Thanks to Jennifer Gick for her research.*

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