Monday, April 18, 2011

Dr. Malachi Treat

In late July New York's port physician, Dr. Malachi Treat, inspected the Zephyr, a ship from the West Indies that had three crew members sick with fevers. The ship's boy died the day Treat boarded the vessel. The doctor looked into a sack that held the corpse and thought he died of "bilious remitting fever," then the medical description of yellow fever. No one would believe his diagnosis.

The captain of the Zephyr was anxious to land his cargo, and unceremoniously dumped water damaged coffee into the East River to hurry along inspection of his ship. He too was sick but described his own fever as dysentery, and claimed the boy died of worms.

Alarmed at the putrefying corpse, Treat had it and himself rowed out to Nutten Island to assure its proper burial. When Treat himself got a fever, those jealous of the port's reputation for health pinpointed that exertion in the hot sun by a man known to have a chronic stomach disorder as the source of his fever, not his exposure to contagion on the Zephyr. Of course, while Treat's own fever could be explained away, his report of yellow fever was handed to the city's health committee. It toned down Treat's report, noting only that the boy had "suspicious symptoms." The ship's passengers were allowed to land.

Then the ship William hauled up next to the Zephyr and several crew members soon had a bad fever. Common report described it as yellow fever. The port warden talked to the owner of the William who said there had been much sickness on board during its passage. The health committee kept the warden's report to itself.

Shortly before he died on July 29, a colleague visited Treat. He "knew me when I entered the room," Dr. William Smith wrote to a doctor in Philadelphia a month later, "he looked yellow, red, and bloated - his extremities cold - his pulse irregular - he raised himself in bed, and seemed willing to make unavailing efforts to get on the floor, which I dissuaded him from - he said if he could stop his gulping he should do well - it was a mixt spasmodic affection, I could hardly tell whether most a hiccup or an effort to vomit - it produced no evacuation - I inquired of him whether he thought himself under the influence of infection - he answered, and nothing more was said on the subject - 'Ah Dr. I don't know' - 'sometimes I think - But don't you think' - his debilitated intellect labored under a gloomy incertitude!" He died eight hours later.

In the week after he died there were eulogies in the newspapers, but no mention of nor speculation on the cause of his death.

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