Curator of Archives Meg Hughes discusses our changing understanding of Richmond’s Typhoid outbreaks and Pandemic: Richmond, the Valentine’s upcoming exhibition
In 2014, museum technician Laura Carr wrote about the digitization of a series of lantern slides donated by the Richmond Health Department to the Valentine in 1981. The slides depict efforts to eradicate typhoid fever in Richmond. At the time, we did not have a lot of information to share about the images. Happily, recent staff research has brought to light new details about this interesting collection.
The Richmond Health Department formed in 1906. One of its early initiatives (1907) was to investigate 433 cases of typhoid fever, creating the city’s first systematic study of infectious disease. In 1908, Dr. Ernest C. Levy (1868–1938), head of the Richmond Health Department, published the survey findings in The Old Dominion Journal of Medicine and Surgery. Dr. Levy discussed the generally declining rate of typhoid fever cases in Richmond from 1880 to 1907 but noted several outbreaks of the disease in 1881, 1884 and 1900.
One change in our understanding of the lantern slide collection relates to the overall city map that begins the series.
We originally understood the solid circles to indicate cases of typhoid fever, in which case the disease appeared to concentrate within the heart of the city. This is not the case. In fact, the solid circles represent properties with city-supplied water. Hollow circles represent properties with water provided by wells or springs. While one cluster of outbreaks in Church Hill was determined to come from a typhoid-infected confectioner, the larger proportion of cases were from properties on the outskirts of the city, generally using water from wells or springs and lacking sewage systems. Viewing the circles with this new information completely changes one’s interpretation of the map.
Museum visitors will learn more about Richmond’s fight against typhoid fever and other infectious diseases in May 2018 when Pandemic: Richmond opens in the Valentine’s Lower Level. This exhibition explores the repeated storms of disease that have swept through the city. From influenza to cholera to polio to AIDS/HIV, Pandemic: Richmond investigates how Richmonders have fought silent, invisible enemies and tells their stories of both loss and survival
Meg Hughes is the Curator of Archives at the Valentine