Loss and love in the worst hard times
In 1665, when the Great London Plague forced Oxford University to close, Isaac Newton, a 22-year-old student there, went home to shelter with his aunt. During the downtime, he invented calculus.
Newton’s achievement is a lonely day-brightener in the long, dark story of pandemics. Diseases like the plague, smallpox, typhoid fever, and Spanish flu have wreaked havoc throughout history. Every outbreak began with limited understanding of the disease’s biology and how it spread. Initially, there were no vaccines available, and like the current pandemic, social isolation was the primary means of coping.
Smallpox was a ruthless killer. European settlers, who had some immunity, brought it to Native Americans, who had none. In a tragedy that defies comprehension, 90% of North American Indians perished from smallpox. Whites died in vastly fewer numbers, but still, it was a terrifying disease. An old saying cautioned against considering your children your own until they had contracted and recovered from smallpox.
New London experienced many of these outbreaks and their grim consequences. Frances Caulkins, 19th-century city historian, chronicled some specific instances of smallpox’s impact. For example, an early victim was Jeffrey Christopher, Jr., the son of a West Indies trader, who died of it in 1690. Another casualty was John Rogers, a religious reformer, who contracted the disease in 1720 on a trip to visit the sick in Boston during a severe outbreak there. Rogers let his common sense be overridden by his commitment to doing good and his belief in his own invulnerability.
In the 1750s, New London was dealing with smallpox arriving aboard the many ships coming into the harbor. The town selectmen (there were no city health officials) established a quarantine ground out by the lighthouse. An influx of French Huguenots from Nova Scotia brought more cases, exacerbating the problem.
During the Revolution, smallpox compounded the misery of war. In 1776, New London lawyer Richard Law had planned to attend the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, but smallpox made that out of the question. He missed being part of one of the most significant events in modern history, the Declaration of Independence. Despite what must have been a monumental disappointment, Law survived, became the first mayor of New London, and lived to see the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
As in all human crises, there are always good people doing brave things. John Ely, a Lyme doctor known for his skill in treating smallpox patients, served in the Continental army. He cared for American soldiers suffering with the disease, and while he was a POW on Long Island, treated sick Brits, too. He was released in 1780 and died that same year. (I don’t know if he became infected while caring for his captors, but it seems plausible.)
Lucretia Shaw was another hero of the Revolution; she cared for former prisoners of war in her home on Blinman Street in New London. The men had been held by the British on prison ships in New York harbor under deplorable conditions. When they were released, they were mere skeletons, ragged, starving, and often suffering from smallpox or typhoid fever. In spite of the obvious risks, Lucretia became their nurse, but caught typhoid and died in 1781. She was 43 years old.
The situation in Waterford at this same time was dire, too. A graveyard for smallpox victims was established off Fog Plain Road. It was known variously as the Crane or Chester Farm Cemetery; two nearby houses served as makeshift hospitals, no doubt at great risk to their owners.
Connecticut officially approved the use of smallpox inoculation in 1777, but people remained wary for some time. In 1787, doctors John Owen Miner and Silas Holmes opened an “inoculation hospital” away from the general population on Dodges Island (at the mouth of the Mystic River). Their ad in the Connecticut Gazette invited anyone who wanted to have the disease the “safe and easy way” to come to their hospital for vaccination and treatment of any resulting mild cases. (These doctors spent their lives serving others. Dr. Miner had cared for the wounded after the Battle of Groton Heights, and Dr. Holmes drowned during a storm three years later after making a house call to a patient on Block Island.)
Other inoculation facilities were opened, too, including one run by Dr. John Ely’s brother, Elisha, in Saybrook, and one by Dr. Samuel Wolcott in New London. As acceptance of vaccination grew, smallpox outbreaks subsided, but in the 19th century, typhoid fever ran rampant in Civil War military camps. It may have taken as many lives as bullets did.
Fast forward to 1918, when Spanish flu rocked the world. It was spread by troop movement during World War I, making the busy New London port especially vulnerable. My mother, who was 12 years old at the time, recalled how sick she felt, and described her frightening fever-induced hallucinations. She credited her recovery to the tender care of her nurse, who became infected too but also survived.
If there’s a bright spot in all the tragedies that pandemics bring, it’s a radiant one. It’s the astonishing unselfishness of front-line healthcare workers and responders who, with full knowledge of the peril they face, put the welfare of others above their own.