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Free Afrcan Society's Black Nurses and the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic
In 1793, Philadelphia was as large and as cosmopolitan a city as could be found in the new United States. Until 1800, Philadelphia served as the U.S. capitol. The city was also home to a substantial number of people of color. The yellow fever outbreak that began that summer led to an outcry for help to the Black Benevolent Societies..
As the disease spread, so too did panic. Some 20,000 residents fled the city. Deaths became so frequent that the College of Physicians asked city officials to stop tolling bells for the dead because the constant ringing was so oppressive.
With the exodus of so many able-bodied people, care for the sick and dying was limited at best. In desperation, civic leaders — including Declaration of Independence signatory Benjamin Rush, M.D., then a professor at the Institutes of Medicine — approached the city’s black community for help. Like many people of the time, he believed that black people had some special immunity to the virus.
The leaders of Philadelphia’s Free African Society, a mutual aid organization founded in 1787 by ministers Absalom Jones and Richard Allen in partnership with black abolitionists like William Gray, willingly agreed to provide that help, often asking little or no pay. Jones and Allen, who had some medical training, also played an active role in treating the sick, sometimes working directly with Rush. By their own account, they cared for “upwards of 800 people.”
Image: Black Cross Nurses