McKissick explores different treatments of yellow fever

Blister, bleed or puke—those were the treatment options doctors in Charleston gave to yellow fever patients in the 1860s. It’s little wonder hundreds of people died during the epidemics that plagued South Carolina’s Lowcountry in the mid-19th century.

Researching the outbreaks, University of South Carolina biological anthropology doctoral student Liz Wakefield found an interesting aspect; the mortality rate for blacks was lower—in fact, much lower -- than for whites.

In 1858, 679 white residents succumbed to the disease called the saffron scourge because of the yellow tint that patients developed in their eyes and skin, while only 29 black slaves died. The numbers were the same for epidemics in 1854, 1856, 1864 and 1871.

Wakefield set out to discover why there was such a disparity among the races. The research turned into the basis for her thesis. That thesis and all the collected artifacts were enough for a museum exhibit.

“Black Medicine/White Bodies: An Investigation of Yellow Fever Epidemics in Charleston, 1854-1871” opened this month at McKissick Museum.

The roots of racism can be found in the 19th century medical community, which believed blacks were anatomically and biologically different from whites. While some of the African slaves had early exposure to the tropical, mosquito-borne disease, clues to the different death rates are found in the treatment.

“Western white doctors were very invasive in their treatment,” says Wakefield. “They would open a vein to bleed the patient.” She says many times doctors would force the patient to vomit.

The exhibit includes a cupping set from the 1830s. The tortoise-shell cups with ivory handles were used as part of a therapy to draw toxins out of the body, but would leave blisters on the skin.

The procedure was extremely painful. Wakefield found in her research many antidotes of white residents who sought the help of black root doctors, also known as medicine men or witch doctors.

 “African medicine looked at the person from a spiritual side and a biological side,” says Wakefield. “It was more holistic.”

 The healers used botanical treatments; mixing together herbs to help in recovery. Western medicine adopted some of those practices, even though there were laws that prevented slaves from practicing medicine.

 “Doctors knew which slaves were good at mixing herbs,” says Wakefield.

 The exhibit, which runs through May 6, also includes pill rollers from the 1850s, medicine bottles, apothecary jars and a medicine case with glass tubes.

 McKissick is free and open 8:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. on Saturdays. The museum is closed during university holidays.

 McKissick will host a number of educational events related to the exhibit.

 Peter McCandless, who is professor emeritus at the College of Charleston, wrote the book, “Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry,” examining the healthcare structure in antebellum S.C. He will present his research on the yellow fever epidemics during a lecture at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2 in the McKissick Auditorium.

 An interactive performance based on the experiences of newly arrived European immigrants, long-time Charleston residents and African slaves during the 1850s will take place starting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16 on the Horseshoe in front of the museum. The performers will work their way through the exhibit.

 “Hoodoo doctor” Andy Tate will perform “Doctuh Buzzard’s Hoodoo Awakening” from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 28 during the farmer’s market in front of the Russell House. The performance draws its material on the hoodoo culture that it uses to help people attain power, success and luck.

 Support for the exhibition and programming is provided by the Institute for African American Research, the Waring Library Society and Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina.

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