Mosquitoes and Yellow Fever

Stop 3 of 4 in the Animals in the French Quarter tour

As you stand in front of the fountain in Jackson Square or walk through the French Quarter peering into courtyards and hearing the faint trickle and splash of a fountain, think about the bugs that these water features attract. Mosquitoes have been plaguing New Orleanians since the first colonists arrived in the 18th century. In addition to biting our ankles and leaving behind itchy welts, mosquitoes spread diseases like Yellow Fever.

It took a long time to combat this disease because people did not understand what exactly caused the fever or how it spread. After the particularly deadly epidemic of 1853, in which 7,849 people died, the city strove to find ways to counter Yellow Fever. One method included burning tar, which was supposed to purify the air. The municipal government also ordered the city's cannons to be fired, supposing that the vibrations would shake the disease out of the air.

The city's swamp setting contributed to the extremely high fever fatalities. Since portions of New Orleans are below sea-level, clean drinking water has always been an issue. Wells are not an option, as digging even a few feet into the ground will hit bogs. So residents relied on cisterns, massive wood or iron cylinders that were open on the top for collecting rainwater, to provide clean water. Of course, mosquitoes are attracted to standing water and lay their eggs in the stagnant pools.

The last Yellow Fever epidemic in the United States struck New Orleans in 1905, which was the same year that doctors working at Walter Reed Hospital discovered the link between mosquitoes and Yellow Fever. With an understanding of the disease, New Orleans officials were able to fight it, primarily by ordering that all cisterns be covered.

The city's fog trucks drive slowly down the streets of New Orleans, spraying pesticides into the air in order to kill the bugs and their eggs. The agency also uses an airplane for marsh areas. So while you pause at this fountain, keep in mind the tens of thousands of New Orleanians for whom water such as this proved deadly.

To find out about how termites have impacted the very foundations of this city, proceed to the corner of Chartres and Toulouse. Simply exit Jackson Square toward St. Louis Cathedral and immediately turn left. Follow Chartres St. for a block and a half. As you walk, take note of the evenly spaced silver circles that dot the sidewalks of the French Quarter.

Images

Yellow Fever Quarantine Camp,

Yellow Fever Quarantine Camp,

The camp seen here, Fort Vigilant, was established outside of Baton Rouge during the 1897 Yellow Fever outbreak. Unsure of how it was transmitted, officials sought to keep the disease from decimating that city by setting up quarantine camps. | Source: Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. | Creator: Lyttle's Studio, Baton Rouge, Louisiana View File Details Page

Treatments for Yellow Fever

Treatments for Yellow Fever

Dr. Holt describes the symptoms of Yellow Fever as "a chill, attended with violent head-ache, soon followed by severe pain of the back, and, in some cases, of the limbs also." As a remedy, he offers a complex series of hot baths and special teas. | Source: Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. View File Details Page

Cheesecloth Keeps Mosquitoes Out of Cisterns

Cheesecloth Keeps Mosquitoes Out of Cisterns

These cisterns have been covered with cheesecloth in order to prevent mosquitoes from breeding there while still allowing them to collect water. In addition to cheesecloth, some citizens poured petroleum on top of the water in their cisterns. Since the two do not mix, the oil would float, preventing mosquitoes from landing without polluting the water supply. | Source: Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons View File Details Page

WPA Workers Kill Malarial Mosquitoes

WPA Workers Kill Malarial Mosquitoes

While Yellow Fever was the big killer during the 19th century, mosquitoes transmit Malaria as well. Here a WPA worker sprays fuel onto standing water to prevent insects from breeding there. | Source: Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library. View File Details Page

Mosquito Control Plane

Mosquito Control Plane

Methods for controlling the mosquito population continued to modernize. This prop plane would fly low over fields and coat crops with pesticide so that insects could not ruin a harvest. | Source: Image Courtesy of the Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library. View File Details Page

New Orleans Insecticide Truck

New Orleans Insecticide Truck

To this day, trucks like the one in this photo patrol the city streets spraying pesticide to prevent the mosquito population from terrorizing the human one. | Source: Image is in the Public Domain, Courtesy of the Public Health Image Library for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Alison Laurence, Sarah Waits, “Mosquitoes and Yellow Fever,” New Orleans Historical, accessed July 26, 2017, http://neworleanshistorical.org/items/show/132.
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