The summer of 1853 was a dark time in New Orleans, as yellow fever spread like fire throughout every corner of the city. Physicians and city officials scrambled to find a cure as people quickly succumbed to the effects of an epidemic that had killed 7,849 people by autumn 1853, making it the deadliest epidemic in New Orleans history. After much debate among city officials on how to deal with the outbreak, a sanitation commission headed by Dr. Edward Hall Barton was assembled to investigate the spread of the disease. This report, published by the sanitation commission in 1854, gives us an in-depth look into the history of the 1853 epidemic through testimony given by local physicians; statistics tracking the disease’s spread; and a series of sanitation procedures to be implemented.
We know today that yellow fever is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito found throughout tropical climates in the Americas, a fact that was unknown to physicians until it was discovered by Dr. Walter Reed in 1900. The sanitation commission believed that the spread of yellow fever could be attributed to poor atmospheric conditions and improper hygiene. Barton’s disappointment at the state of the city’s hygiene is evident in the report: “New Orleans is one of the dirtiest, and with other conjoint causes, is the sickliest city in the Union, and scarcely anything has been done to remedy it.”
To combat the city’s hygiene crisis, Barton and his team outlined a series of sanitation procedures that called for the proper disposal of all forms of waste, rigid street cleaning, new drainage methods to prevent stagnant pools from forming in populated areas, and the development of a quarantine system in the event that the city was faced with another epidemic. While yellow fever continued to be a nuisance for New Orleans in the years to come, the sanitation procedures outlined in the 1854 report are credited with better preparing the city for the disease and preventing another epidemic like that of 1853 from ever happening again.