The Autumnal Fever: The Outbreak of the Yellow Fever in Savannah, Georgia in 1820

The Yellow Fever outbreak in Savannah, Georgia in Autumn of 1820 took the lives of nearly 700 residents of Savannah. Two physicians lost their lives in the fight against the outbreak, their names are unknown. Characterized by the “ejection of black bile from the stomach” and an inflamed eye first struck Savannah in July of 1820 and lasted until the November months. Savannah had been ravaged by a first outbreak one year earlier, which was less deadly. 

This project attempts to understand how and why the outbreak occurred by looking at it from the perspective of two doctors who treated it, Dr.’s William Waring and W.C. Coffee. Each doctor authored a report that offers contemporary accounts of the outbreak and its effects. This project will also demonstrate the links between religion and medicine as Western medicine was still in its infancy and this helps to mark the period of rapid secularization of medical practices. It will also demonstrate what life was like before the outbreak by offering perspectives from elites, the middle class, as well as the poor and enslaved populations of Savannah. The initial outbreak of 1820 is one that is little studied in the history of medicine and epidemiology, but nonetheless it is important because it characterizes a shift from faith based medicine to the scientific reasoning that would define the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.