As we continue to live in the strange conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, I wanted to tell the story of the heroes of Alabama’s yellow fever epidemic of 1888. The current situation gives us some idea of what medical personnel faced more than 130 years ago, although yellow fever spread differently and the virus was carried from person to person via mosquito.
Before a reliable vaccine was developed in the 1920s, it spread quickly and without control.
Most Alabama cities were struck by epidemics at some point in their history and 1888 was a particularly bad year in Decatur. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, the creation of a state and county health department helped stop spread of yellow fever. “The last cases of yellow fever verified in Alabama occurred in 1905,” the Encyclopedia says.
Because of a severe epidemic 10 years earlier, in 1878, most Decatur residents fled to other towns during the 1888 outbreak, which helped minimize deaths. Doctors and caregivers, however, were greatly affected – Decatur lost five physicians during the 1888 outbreak. Although I could not find exact number of deaths in 1888, the book “Yellow Fever and the South,” says the mortality rate was much lower than during the 1878 outbreak. Author Margaret Humphreys wrote that the outbreak still alarmed people. “ … the epidemic of 1888 was the first region-wide epidemic in ten years. As such, it generated national attention, anxiety, and calls for strengthening the country’s defenses against yellow fever.”
One hundred years after Decatur’s deadliest epidemic, residents erected a monument in Decatur City Cemetery in 1988. It is an obelisk atop a base that on one side reads:
Memorial to the Five Doctors who Died While Combating Yellow Fever in Decatur
Dr. R.C. Bowman, Died September 21, 1888
Dr. W.B. Black, Died October 7, 1888
Dr. W.G. Gill, Died October 15, 1888
Dr. R.V. Williams, Died October 25, 1888
Dr. W.J. Young, Died October 26, 1888
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:43.
A friend, H. M. Welch of Fayetteville, Ark., wrote of Dr. William Gardner Gill in his obituary:
My old friend was not alone in his heroic devotion to his plague-smitten fellow citizens but, he was among the few who remained to meet the terrors of the pestilence and to give both professional and Christian aid and comfort to the distressed and the suffering. All honor and praise be to those who remained unfaltering at the post of duty and danger. Embalmed be the names and memory of those who fell! Dr. Gill could have fled—being alone, but he would not. He resolved to give his life if need be, rather than abandon those around him, who needed medical aid and comfort. Once before, in 1878, he braved the terrors of the scourge in that city and escaped unharmed, but his faithful wife fell by his side, a victim of that fearful malady. Ten years passed away and the faithful and devoted Christian physician, called to meet another invasion of disease and death, has fallen at the post of duty and gone to join the land of loved ones gone before, for he had buried nearly all of his family.
Another side of the monument base is dedicated to:
Tribute to the Following: Funeral Directors, Grave Diggers, Ministers, Druggists of 1888 and Contributors of [erecting the monument] 1988-89.
The third side reads:
Dedicated to State Health Officer Jerome Cochran who Rescued Decatur from the Fireman’s Torch
To All Victims who Herein Lie
Side four reads:
Dedicated to the Decatur Doctors who Served and Survived Yellow Fever:
Dr. Ben Cross
Dr. E.J. Covington
Dr. W. Buckley
Dr. John B. Sewell