IDPH 125th


In 1878, an outbreak of yellow fever in Cairo alarmed the state and led to quarantine measures that practically paralyzed traffic from the south.

Known at the time as "the hot year," 1878 began with a mild winter followed by a hot spring and an excessively hot summer.

The highly fatal yellow fever epidemic worked its way north along the Mississippi River Valley, pausing in Hickman, Kentucky, prior to its arrival in Cairo in August.

Wanting to prevent yellow fever from entering the state at Cairo, state and local health officials moved to institute a quarantine in late July 1878. The quarantine order was the first time the State Board of Health had tested its power to enact and enforce rules and regulations to preserve the public's health. The levees were patrolled by armed guards and all steamers and trains from the south were visited by a physician. If all was well, the steamers and trains were allowed to enter the city.

During the quarantine, a steamer from New Orleans landed in Cairo and discharged its crew members, one of whom died at a Cairo hospital on Aug. 12. In about a week, the steamer returned from St. Louis with several cases of yellow fever on board. Part of the crew again remained in Cairo and the steamer proceeded up the Ohio River.

Ironically, yellow fever struck hard at the Cairo Bulletin, whose editor had been active in getting authorities to clean up the city and simultaneously trying to calm the fears of city residents. The father of the Bulletin's publisher and later the paper's editor and two printers died of the disease.

Many residents left town and did not return until the disease seemed to abate in late September. The schools reopened on Sept. 30, 1878; however, they were soon closed again when yellow fever reappeared in October. On Oct. 6 and 7, six people died, including a public school teacher.

Another exodus occurred, with about one-third of the city's population fleeing. Business was suspended, except for those services deemed necessary for the people who remained at home. Those who left did not begin returning to Cairo until the latter part of October when a frost brought the outbreak to an end.

A total of 80 cases, 62 of them fatalities, occurred during the yellow fever outbreak at Cairo. Five cases and three deaths occurred in Centralia, 100 miles north of Cairo, and a woman died at home in Rockford after contracting the disease in Decatur, Alabama.

... Years Ago in Public Health

A Timeline of the Illinois Department of Public Health

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