George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Timothy Pickering, 21 October 1793

From Timothy Pickering

Philadelphia Oct. 21. 1793.


I have been honoured with your letter of the 14th relatively to the fever which has raged so fatally in this city. “Accurate information” of its state it may be impossible to obtain. But I am warranted by Doctor Rush’s opinion, grounded on his own practice and the information of other physicians, that there is an abatement of it by at least one half. For a number of days preceeding the last ten days, I was frequently at Dr Rush’s, when his house was always thronged with applicants for assistance or advice: I sat an hour with him yesterday, and not one new application was made. One of his young men said that on Saturday a French physican of the hospital at Bush-Hill, told him they had then but three dangerous cases there.1

About Three Thousand persons have died in the city and suburbs, since the beginning of August; of whom perhaps 2800 may have died of the yellow fever. Of the persons you mention by name, Mr Willing & Mr John Ross are alive and well. Mr J. Sergeant, Mr Howell a lawyer, brother in law to Mr Rawle,2 & Colo. Franks, are dead; as well as many other valuable citizens. Mr Powell’s death was long since announced in the news-papers.

Of the multitude that have died, I believe full three fourths have fallen victims to bad practice, and absolute neglect. This neglect was such, that nearest relatives have abandoned each other. Many physicians persisted in the stimulant plan of cure, against the evidence of their senses. Yet at length, when themselves attacked by the disease, they have resorted to Dr Rush’s mode—bleeding and purging. One of them (Dr Currie) in particular, in a publication of the 17th of September, pronounced bleeding & purging in the yellow fever, to be certain death. He has lately fallen sick, and rescued himself from the grave by bleeding & purging!3 Some others (probably most or all now) bleed & purge but either inadequately, or counteract their effects by then giving bark and laudanum! To this last mentioned practice, the pious Dr Sproat, one of his daughters, his son the Major (formerly aid to Genl Hand) and his wife, have lately fallen sacrifices.4 In short, multitudes have been the unhappy victims of ignorance & pride. Dr Kuhn early pronounced the disease to be putrid & debilitating. Dr Stevens (who attended Colo. Hamilton) confirmed his errors: and they had many followers.5 Kuhn soon fled to a safe distance from the city: but has left his first opinion uncontradicted. That Rush’s opinion was right, is confirmed by writers of indisputable authority, as well as large experience here. He, it is true, has lost a number of patients: but worn down with fatigue, he was not able to see divers of them at critical periods. From observation in my own family, of those who died as well as those who lived, I am perfectly convinced that terrible as the disease has proved, the cure of it, in common subjects, is short and easy, if no time be lost in bleeding and purging, according to the degree of inflamation. In a letter I lately wrote you, I mentioned the death of one of my sons:6 the other death in my family was of a maid servant. Eight have had the disease. Besides which, Mrs P. & myself, without being confined, have experienced new sensations which we can attribute only to the contagion, of the fever. On my return from Canada, I found, unexpectedly, my family in the city; and a son and servant sick. Under such circumstances, it was impossible for me to find a house in the country for their reception, and I could not abandon them. And when we had all been exposed to the contagion, I feared to remove from the physician on whom I could depend. Numbers have removed with the infection, and died in the country. This in a few instances has happened in Germantown: but the disease has not otherwise been there.

If this city should remain infected till December, Germantown will not furnish accommodations for Congress: ’tis crouded with citizens of Philadelphia. Reading is a large village, containing several hundred houses, with a large courthouse that might do for the house of Representatives; and probably some room elsewhere in the town might be found for the Senate. I have several times thought on the ensuing session of Congress; but indeterminately on the safety of their meeting here the beginning of December. Dr Rush thinks that by that time the city will be free of the contagion, here and there a solitary instance excepted, from which there can scarcely be any hazard.7 This is a well known fact—That a considerable encrease of cold, even during a single day, has constantly been marked by a abatement of the number of deaths. If then in the height of the contagion, its effects were suspended by a day’s cold, we may reasonably conclude that a continuance of cold with rains, which we may expect in November, will destroy it. And this is Dr Rush’s opinion.

I do not know what sentiments are entertained relative to the meeting of Congress. I will see Judge Peters and the Attorney General, and transmit you their opinions by the next post. I will afterwards write you weekly or oftener on the state of the disease, from which you will be able to determine what course to pursue. But I would entreat you not to return hither yourself so soon as the beginning of next month—nor to any place in the neighbourhood for you would be illy accommodated. I am with the most sincere respect, sir Your obedt & humble servant

Timothy Pickering

ALS, DLC:GW; ADfS, MHi: Pickering Papers.

1Jean Devèze (1753–1829), a doctor trained at Bordeaux and Paris who had spent many years as a military surgeon in Saint Domingue, was one of the refugees from that island who arrived at Philadelphia in early August. He later published An Enquiry into, and Observations upon the Causes and Effects of the Epidemic Disease, Which Raged in Philadelphia from the Month of August till towards the Middle of December, 1793 (Philadelphia, 1794) and, after his return to France, Traité de la Fièvre Jaune (Paris, 1820).

2The draft has “Jacob Howell.”

3In a letter addressed to Andrew Brown, editor of the Federal Gazette, and dated 17 Sept., Dr. William Currie (1754–1828), a founder of the Philadelphia College of Physicians and member of the American Philosophical Society, argued that two fevers were present in Philadelphia: “the infectious or yellow fever” and “the common remittent or fall fever.” He declared that the mode of treatment advised by Dr. Benjamin Rush was proper only with the remittent fever and meant “certain death” when applied to the yellow fever (Federal Gazette and Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, 17 Sept.). Later, however, his Treatise on the Synochus Icteroides, or Yellow Fever: As It Lately Appeared in the City of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1794) stated that “Blood-letting generally afforded relief in all cases, when the activity of the arterial system was evident,” and endorsed “mercurial purges” in conjunction with the blood-letting (pp. 40–42).

4James Sproat (1722–1793), a graduate of Yale College in 1743, served as minister of Philadelphia’s Second Presbyterian Church from 1769 until his death on 18 October. His daughter Anne [Nancy] Sproat (c.1767–1793) died on 23 September. William Sproat (1756–1793), James’s son, served as an officer in the Pennsylvania Regiments of the Continental army from January 1777 to November 1783, rising in rank from lieutenant to captain. He served as aide-de-camp and brigade major for Brig. Gen. Edward Hand during the Sullivan expedition in 1779 and at Yorktown in 1781. After the war, William Sproat became a merchant in Philadelphia; he died on 11 October. Maria Thompson Sproat (1767–1793), a daughter of John Thompson of Cecil County, Md., had married William Sproat in October 1792.

At this point on the draft, Pickering wrote and struck out the following: “One German Clergyman [John Winkhause of the German Calvinist Church] & two Catholic Priests [Francis A. Fleming and Laurence Graessl] have also died. Mr [Joseph] Pilmore is sick but, recovering. Mr [Robert] Blackwell about a week since went from the city to Gloucester where he has fallen sick.”

5Dr. Adam Kuhn’s view of the “Putrid Fever” was published in the Federal Gazette of 11 Sept. as an extract of a letter dated 7 Sept. and signed A.K. In a postscript to that letter, printed in the Gazette of 12 Sept., Kuhn cited Dr. Edward Stevens in support of the application of cold baths. Stevens’s opinion about the fever was given fuller expression in a letter to Dr. John Redman, published in the Gazette of 16 September. He recommended treating the disease with rest and efforts to mitigate the symptoms, and strongly opposed the use of “drastic cathartics.”

7On this date Benjamin Rush noted in a letter to his wife, “If the weather continues to increase in coldness, and above all if we should have a few days’ heavy rain joined with it, the disease will be driven from the city in a few weeks. A few scattered cases may perhaps exist from carelessness or accident during the winter” (Butterfield, Rush Letters description begins L. H. Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J., 1951. description ends , 2:720–21).

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