Monday, April 18, 2011

Bellevue Patients 1795

At Bellevue four patients were admitted that day, including William Dewitt, a baker on Whitehall Street across from the Battery away from the supposed limits of the contagion. He was delirious and nothing Dr. Anderson did could stop it. Early the next morning Anderson found Dewitt had escaped and lay naked inside a nearby summer house. He was dying yet that afternoon had the strength to chase other patients with a club. It took three men to subdue him and push him into a little room where he died two hours later.

Earlier in 1795 the New York City health committee purchased a house called Bellevue about a mile up the East River from the settled part of the city.

They designated it as the city's "fever hospital." Anyone with yellow fever or in a condition that could be mistaken for yellow fever was to be sent there. The imperative was to keep the port of New York open by isolating fever victims far from it. What happened to Philadelphia in 1793 and New Haven in 1794 would not happen to New York.

Dr. Anderson began working at Bellevue on August 24 and found 6 patients and a staff of 6: a steward and his wife, an old black gardener, a black nurse and two white nurses. On August 27th, Anderson met the full force of yellow fever. A
patient came who was "in a shocking condition - 10th day of the disease - vomiting blood by the mouthfuls." He died in two hours. A young girl who had nursed some one with the disease in town was brought out only to die despite Anderson's using Dr. Rush's remedies, purging and bleeding. On the last day of August one of the hospital nurses became sick. Suspecting fever, Anderson bled her, but a visiting Health Committee member insisted she had a drinking problem, not the fever. Then another
nurse quit after a fight with the steward's wife. Patients had to take care of each other.

In all its public statements the Health Committee minimized any evidence that New York was having a yellow fever epidemic. What Dr. Anderson reported to the committee is not known. We know what he experienced from the diary he kept, now at the New-York Historical Society.

Then 20 years old, Alexander Anderson was the son of a Scot auctioneer. His passions were wood engraving, poetry and playing the violin. His father decided Alexander would become a doctor and apprenticed him to Dr. Joseph Young when he was 14 years old. In his diary Anderson wrote more about art, poetry, religion and nature, than medicine. After two weeks on duty, Anderson thought seriously about quitting the hospital. He regained his equilibrium by taking a day off to sail down and visit his father one day, and take tea with his mother on another.

On September 4 he counted 16 patients, then "5 or 6" more were admitted. One patient died the evening of the 6th, two died on the 7th. Then in the evening a patient came from his old master Dr. Young, as well as news that the doctor's Indian servant George had died and the doctor's brother was dangerously ill. Then William Dewitt experienced his rampaging death at Belleview.

Following the practice of Philadelphia in 1793, the Health Committee began publishing a daily toll of the dead, 11 on the September 17th, 14 on the 18th, but added this explanation to alleviate apprehensions: "a large proportion of the deaths hitherto reported have fallen among emigrants lately from Europe, strangers, and other transient persons." No mention of the baker Dewitt in particular.

The committee tried to hide evidence that the epidemic had revived. It chastised gravediggers for opening more graves than the committee ordered. It tried to keep down the numbers sent to Bellevue by sending the sick to city physicians. It admonished the boatmen who took patients to Bellevue to stop acting so hastily, charging them with removing patients without warning. It sent a committee out to investigate Anderson's methods at Bellevue, suspecting he might be causing the increase in the number of deaths.

No fault could be found, as Anderson used Rush's methods. The Committee sent another doctor to help Anderson but Dr. William Johnson soon got sick and recovered back in the city. As the fever spread through the east side of the city, Bellevue was more or less forgotten, except by some senior physicians who dissected the bodies of the dead trying to better understand the mysterious power of yellow fever.

Anderson remained a doctor and served again at Bellevue during the 1798 epidemic. Its ferocity persuaded him to give up medicine and he became America's foremost wood engraver and popular illustrator.

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