Shawn Holland Moore

A Maritime City in Crisis: Norfolk and the Yellow Fever of 1855

(Under the direction of Donald Parkerson) Department of History, July 1998.

This thesis is a study of the 1855 yellow fever epidemic on Norfolk, Virginia. It focuses on Norfolk as a developing city, yellow fever as a disease, the events and consequences of the epidemic, and the public health reform movement it helped create. It is essentially a case study of a yellow fever epidemic and its effect on a port city and to some extent the nation.

Norfolk's economic beginnings were turbulent. The town grew quickly into a city and enjoyed some success, but it did not sufficiently diversify its economic base of commerce. This made Norfolk vulnerable to the whims of both foreign countries and the Federal Government. Norfolk's involvement with ongoing international trade wars as well as heavy competition from the interior cities of Virginia left the city economically weak. Moreover, Norfolk as a port city was susceptible to diseases, like yellow fever, imported by foreign vessels.

Norfolk's struggles with yellow fever was typical of many southern port cities. The 1855 epidemic began with the arrival of the Benjamin Franklin from St. Thomas and ended with 2,000 people dead. In the interim the city was besieged by sickness and famine with few people to care for or bury the victims. Once the epidemic ended, citizens not only returned to restart the government and economy, but also to question the course of events during the previous three months, As a result many became involved in the public health reform to safeguard against another consuming epidemic.