The Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1871

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Colonial House

19th Century House in Buenos Aires


Historical Background

In 1871, Argentina was just at the end of the War of the Triple Alliance, where Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil fought Paraguay. In 1870 López Jordán had rebelled in Santa Fé, having assassinated former President General Urquiza in the Palacio de St José. This led to a civil war that went on until the middle of 1871, when President Sarmiento finally triumphed. At the same time British companies were building the railway network, Irish peasants were taking up sheep farming, the Scots having moved on to cattle ranching, and American merchants were arriving to take advantage of the growing demand for manufactured goods. In addition there was a large influx of Italian immigrants who initially congregated in the poorer parts of the city. All this economic activity lead to a rapid growth in the population of Buenos Aires, so when Yellow Fever broke out in early 1871, the effect was devastating. Estimates of the death toll vary from 13 to 25 thousand victims. At the height of the epidemic, so many people were dying every day that the Buenos Aires Northern Railway Company laid in a temporary branch-line to serve the new cemetery on farmland at Chacarita that had been hurriedly developed when the existing cemeteries could no longer cope.

Houses Those who could afford it fled from the city to the camp to avoid the ravages of the disease. Rapacious landlords in the camp charged vast sums of money for accommodation, food and transport. However there were many, especially the poor, who couldn't leave. As the municipal government had also fled the city, an official Comision Popular was set up to organise relief, but found itself unable to cope with all the demands made on it. In order to alleviate the distress of the poorer members of the British community, H. G. MacDonnell, Chargé d`Affaires at the British Legation, took it on himself to organise assistance. He contacted the various clergymen of the Anglican, Presbyterian and Irish Catholic communities, and along with a newly arrived doctor co-opted for the purpose, set about providing medical and financial assistance to those in need.


This site attempts to tell the story of those distressing times using eyewitness testimony.


The Disease Dramatis Personnae
The causes and nature of the yellow fever epidemic in Buenos Aires of 1871 were not understood at the time. This viral disease was probably not endemic to the River Plate region, but introduced by arriving immigrants, who had travelled through a tropical climate such as Brazil, to reach Argentina.

The true reservoir of the yellow fever virus is the mosquito, ensuring transmission from year to year through its infected eggs. The disease is transmitted by a biting mosquito both to monkeys and humans, and then between humans. The virus remains silent in the body during an incubation period of three to six days. Then the first acute phase begins, normally characterized by fever, muscle pain, headache, shivers, loss of appetite and nausea. After three to four days most patients improve and their symptoms disappear. However, 15% enter a toxic phase within 24 hours. Fever reappears and several body systems are affected. Half of the patients in the toxic phase die within 10-14 days. The remainder recover without significant organ damage.

In 1871 the steamer journey from Rio de Janeiro to Buenos Aires was generally six to seven days, the ideal incubation period. So should a person arrive in Buenos Aires having already been infected through a mosquito bite, he could immediately become a carrier. Large epidemics would occur when migrants introduced the virus into areas with a high human population density. Domestic mosquitoes then carried the virus from person to person. These outbreaks tended to spread outwards from one source to cover a wide area.

This describes the nature of the spread of yellow fever in the period March to May 1871 in Buenos Aires. But in those days medical science had not yet realized the role of the mosquito in transmitting the virus. It is notable that the 1871 epidemic ceased in mid May, coinciding with the onset of colder weather and the approach of winter. The mosquitoes were no longer about.

There is no specific treatment for yellow fever. Dehydration and fever can be corrected with oral rehydration, salts and paracetamol. Intensive supportive care may improve the outcome for seriously ill patients, but is rarely available in poorer, developing countries.

A safe and effective vaccine against yellow fever has been available since 1939, and since then at various times whole populations have been vaccinated. The virus remains present in the environment. Vaccination is highly recommended for travellers to high-risk areas.

Anyone looking for more information can find it in the Fact Sheet No 100 published by the World Health Organisation upon which this summary has been based.

For a contempory view on the causes of the disease see this extract from a US Navy report in the archives of the Academy of Medicine in Toronto.


The first recorded victim was Juana Ceranden, diagnosed at the British Hospital on 14th February.
On 28th March, J.P. Albarricín and J. Güemes commenced publishing a daily bulletin of the epidemic. This was read with some trepidation by those living outside the city, seeking news of friends and relations still in Buenos Aires.
The official death toll was originally given as 13614, later revised to 17,084 but other sources put the toll as high as 26,200. The majority of deaths took place amongst the Italian immigrant community.

The original figures were broken down as follows:

Argentines3397
Italian6201
Spanish1608
French1384
British220
German233
Without ID571
TOTAL13614

The effect on the population of Buenos Aires was a long lasting dread of the disease. Years later, Robert Greene, an ancestor of the author, Susan Wilkinson, advised his wife, who had contracted jaundice, to stay inside until it had gone for fear of people's reaction.


Yellow Fever wasn't the only epidemic to affect Buenos Aires, there were several outbreaks of cholera in the city, culminating in the outbreak of 1868 which resulted in some 1700 deaths, including 126 from the "British" Community. Charles Derbyshire wrote a brief account of the epidemic in his book, My Life in the Argentine Republic 1852-1894
H.G. MacDonnell
Her Britannic Majesty`s Chargé d`Affaires at the British Legation in Buenos Aires. He was responsible for arranging medical and financial relief for the British poor in Buenos Aires.


Rev. Michael Largo Leahy
Roman Catholic priest; the 'Irish pastor' in Buenos Aires during the outbreak of yellow fever in March-May 1871; in 1875 the Irish Chaplain at Carmen de Areco; died in Mendoza in 1884, aged 42;


Rev. Thomas Edward Ash
Acting Chaplain of St John`s Anglican Cathedral, Buenos Aires, from 1870-71.


Rev. Francis Neville Lett
Assistant Chaplain of St John`s Anglican Cathedral, Buenos Aires, 1870-77. Later went to Rosario, Santa Fé.


Rev. James Smith
Chaplain of St Andrew`s Scotch Church in Buenos Aires, 1850-1883.


Dr. C.B. Greenfield
Recently arrived doctor in Buenos Aires, co-opted by the British Legation to render medical support to the poorer members of the British Community.


Dr. John MacDonald
A doctor from the Isle of Skye, he served in the Argentine Army as a surgeon during the war with Paraguay.


Dr. Nathaniel Hiron
Another ex Argentine Army surgeon, he was a member of the Popular Commission on Health during the epidemic.


Mrs M.G. Mulhall
Wife of the joint editor and co-proprietor of The Standard.


Credits:
Original documents researched and transcribed by Jeremy Howat, Alan Longbottom and Graeme Wall
Excerpts from Sebastian`s Pride by kind permission of the author, Susan Wilkinson.
Additional information, assistance and advice courtesy of Alan Longbottom, Cathy Murray, Susan Wilkinson, Jorge Dewey and Maxine Hanon.
Photographs © Greywall Productions
Site edited and designed by Graeme Wall.


The story starts with a Report by H G MacDonnell to the Foreign Office in London

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© Jeremy Howat & Graeme Wall 2002