Recent measles outbreaks across the country led to a February 13 New York Times report on the history of religious exemptions from vaccinations: the state of New York permits such exemptions. The issue is also part of the history of Trinity Wall Street, and what the church did to combat small pox in the early 19th century. You can read more in this edition of The Archivist's Mailbag.
Colonial Epidemics: What Killed Richard Churcher?
The oldest grave in Trinity Churchyard belongs to five-year-old Richard Churcher, who died in 1681. Was it one of the many “fluxs, agues, and fevers” that regularly visited the city, the “noysome” odors from filthy streets, or the wrath of God? There are no records as to how he died, but colonial history suggests he may have perished in a smallpox epidemic.
In 1731, 229 “members of the Church of England” were killed in a smallpox epidemic in New York. At the time, Trinity was the city’s only Anglican parish. In addition to revealing the impact the outbreak must have had on parish life, the fact that smallpox statistics were broken down by victims’ faith points to the centrality of churches and synagogues in eighteenth century healthcare.
Building the Medical Establishment
In 1767, King’s College, which received early support from Trinity, opened the first medical school in the state of New York, the second in the colonies. In 1770, it conferred North America’s first M.D. in a commencement ceremony most likely held in Trinity Church.
Clergy were also at the front lines of birth, illness, and death in the young city. It’s not surprising then that two of New York City’s most important doctors, John Charlton and Richard Bayley, were the son and son-in-law of the Rev. Richard Charlton, Assistant Minister at Trinity Church from 1731-1747.
Charlton and Bayley were themselves men of faith. Charlton served Trinity as a vestryman from 1764 to 1784 and a warden from 1794 to 1806. Bayley raised a future saint, Elizabeth Bayley Seton, as a member of Trinity parish. During this time, Trinity, with other New York churches, regularly joined in days of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer to Almighty God for the preservation of our city from disease” when epidemics threatened.
Faith in God didn’t prevent Charlton and Bayley from waging a science-based battle with disease. In 1794, Charlton lead a reinvigoration of the dormant Medical Society of the State of New York. The Society lobbied for educational requirements for doctors and pharmacists, and advised the city during the yellow fever epidemics of 1795 and 1798. The Society’s work convinced the city that a Board of Health, with power to control city sanitation practices, was needed.
Dr. Bayley consistently put himself in danger in pursuit of the public good. He remained in the city during the 1795 yellow fever outbreak to serve his patients and observe the disease. He published an account of the outbreak, with all the data he had collected on the nature and contagion patterns of the disease. Thereafter he was appointed the city’s first Health Officer. He has been called the “father of the 1799 Quarantine Act,” which gave the federal government power to assist the states with implementation of quarantine laws. He also ran the city’s quarantine grounds on Staten Island. It was dangerous work: in 1801 he fell victim to a “malignant fever” (either yellow fever or typhus) and died.
Public Information and Prayers
There was no cure for smallpox in early America—but there was variolation, a precursor to vaccination that involved deliberately infecting someone with a hopefully mild case of smallpox in order to induce immunity. There were risks involved: a small percentage of those variolated developed virulent smallpox. Early on, there were religious objections. Did variolation violate God’s ability to choose who lived and who died? Weren’t epidemics God’s punishment for sin?
Around 1800, variolation was replaced by vaccination. Vaccination was safe and effective, but it was still a hard sell to the public. So in 1807, the city’s Physician of the Kine Pock Department turned to the records of Trinity Church to convince citizens. In an article in the New-York Evening Post the physician noted, “in the fifteen years immediately preceding the introduction of the vaccine disease into this city, it appears, by a regular record preserved by the Sexton, that 5756 persons were interred in the cemeteries of St. Paul’s and Trinity, of whom 610, upwards of one tenth part of the whole number, had died under the immediate operation of the Small Pox.” Since the introduction of the vaccine, only one-fortieth of deaths in the city were caused by smallpox.
In 1816, despite the availability of the vaccine, a smallpox epidemic again struck New York. In a letter to clergy, the city health officer asked for their assistance in promoting “one of the mildest of all remedies, which heaven has sent in mercy to mankind, for the purpose of exterminating one of the most loathsome of all diseases.” Trinity clergy were happy to comply, and promoted vaccination in the parish.
A Changing City
A new menace arrived in New York in the summer of 1832: cholera.
Trinity’s response to this outbreak was both spiritual and practical, but all the prayers in the city couldn’t stop an epidemic that spread across poor and immigrant neighborhoods through sewage-contaminated water sources. It would take a concerted effort by the city, and churches like Trinity, to bring better services and infrastructure to crowded and neglected Lower Manhattan neighborhoods. Next issue’s Archivist Mailbag will examine Trinity’s role in turning around the health of Lower Manhattan.