As the world manages the Coronavirus pandemic, it is nice to remember what happened in 1914 New Orleans. Where in June that year a 49-year-old Swedish sailor who just came to New Orleans suffered from fever at a boarding house downtown New Orleans. They rushed him to Charity Hospital where he died as a lonely man in an isolation ward quite far from home, where all around him were doctors that continued consulting him to know exactly what he died from.
What Caused the Sailor’s Death?
After he died, an autopsy was performed, and it was determined that he died from bubonic plague. This is a dreaded disease of the lymphatic system, which is spread around by infected rat fleas. It is also known as Black Death. It almost cleared out parts of Asia and Europe in the 1300s, and it arrived in America by way of New Orleans.
Before 1914, this plague had been considered a disease from the old world. It wasn’t around and was not in contact with the new world, from the 1500s to the 1800s. This long journey through the Atlantic kept this disease at bay.
This started to make a huge change in the late 1800s. At this time, the population of rats increased in America, and bigger ships crossed the oceans faster and in a higher number. With time, infected fleas found suitable hosts in this new place.
Arrival of the Bubonic Plague
The first case of bubonic plague started in the Western Hemisphere, and it showed in Brazil 1899, San Francisco in 1900, and Puerto Rico and Cuba in 1912. These were all partners in trade with New Orleans.
The state and city health officials that were concerned launched a preemptive rat trapping expedition in July 1912. Within a few days, they captured the infected rats at the Stuyvesant Docks between Napoleon and Louisiana avenues. No new specimens were caught in 1912 or 1913, and the authorities were excited it was the end. Then, at the end of June 28, 1914, a Swedish national died of the plague.
The next day, someone else came with the same symptoms, and more people became victims of this plague. When August came, it saw the peak of the outbreak and it was safe to say that the average New Orleanian was more worried about the plague than about the erupting war with Europe.
This could have turned into a medical disaster at the worst time, but it turned out to be a health success to the public, because the state, federal and city authorities took the first signs of the plague very seriously. They all worked cooperatively using public support; the officials handled each suspicious case seriously with ways that might seem too much to this day.