Sep 20, 2005

Recovering Northwest Ohio's Epidemiological History


Left: Anopheles quadrimaculatus, carrier of malaria in the Americas

In the most recent survey of the “Best and Worst Cities for Men,” the popular magazine Men’s Health ranked Toledo, OH 94th out of 100 cities surveyed. In addition, Toledo was the only US city to record scores of “F” in the categories of “Fitness,” “Quality of Life,” and “Health.” While hardly scientific, and mostly the fodder of talk radio hosts, the survey nonetheless mirrors a similar nineteenth-century perception of Northwest Ohio as being an unhealthy region.

Inhabiting an area notorious for its dense marshes and fens, the cities and villages of Northwest Ohio possessed another demographic- and commerce-inhibiting feature: a reputation for the poor overall health of the men and women who lived in and around the region known as the Great Black Swamp. Municipalities such as Toledo, Maumee, Sandusky, and Perrysburg struggled to project a healthy image while concurrently harboring deadly microbes, witnessing bouts of epidemic disease, and burying citizens who succumbed to the frequent pestilential occurrences. The presence of endemic malarial parasites in the region contributed to a disease environment ideal for the spread of infectious disease, despite the boosterism of local leaders. Northwest Ohio’s historical legacy as a region of insalubrity merits inclusion among traditionally recognized zones of poor health, such as the notoriety often accorded to cities such as New Orleans.

Left: Lake Maumee, precursor to Lake Erie and the Great Black Swamp

Occupying an area approximately 120 miles long and as many as 40 miles wide, the area known as the Great Black Swamp was once the southwestern bed of Lake Maumee, the predecessor to Lake Erie. Carved by advancing and receding glaciers over several thousand years, the Maumee Valley with its heavy clay soils retained much of the water from the melting glacial ice. The presence of so much free standing swamp water created ideal conditions for malaria-bearing mosquitoes, such as Anopheles quadrimaculatus; this particular species is thought to be the most important malaria vector in North America, and has been found as far north as South Dakota.

The omnipresent regional threat of malarial illness – often called “Maumee fever” by residents - was the subject of the following poem, published in an 1837 edition of the Maumee Express. The dark humor of the poetry does not minimize the extent to which residents of the areas in and around the Great Black Swamp suffered from the effects of P. falciparum and its parasitic, disease-causing cousins:
On Maumee, on Maumee,
'Tis Ague in the fall;
The fit will shake them so,
It rocks the house and all.
There's a funeral every day,
Without a hearse or pall;
They tuck them in the ground
With breeches, coat and all!

Clark Waggoner, nineteenth-century chronicler of Toledo, described the disease legacy of the region in his 1888 book History of the City of Toledo and Lucas County:
At this time [early nineteenth century] there was, perhaps, no more unhealthy place upon the whole continent than at this point of Wood and Lucas Counties…[t]he land, being flat and covered with forests, with no drainage, was a hotbed of miasm, and was as uninviting as possible to the frontiersman. As the land was redeemed from its primitive condition, after the plow-furrow followed the malaria, until whole communities were prostrate with the dread fever and ague.

The reputation of the region as an unhealthful quarter was not restricted to inhabitants of the Old Northwest; indeed, the Great Black Swamp gained national prominence as a center for insalubrity. Daniel Drake repeatedly noted the poor health to be found in the Maumee Valley in his 1850 treatise on the diseases of North America, and in particular described the endemic malarial disease environment to be found in and around the Great Black Swamp in the following passage. Drake argued that a contemporary theory on the source of malarial contagion – noxious gases released by agitated water, such as found in the rapids of a river – did not hold up under closer scrutiny:
Thus Wetumpka [Alabama], at the foot of the long rapids of the Coosa river; Louisville, at the falls of the Ohio River; and Maumee City, at the termination of the rapids of the Maumee River, are all infested with autumnal fever; but other towns, on the same rivers, are likewise scourged with that disease…

It is precisely this background malarial endemicity that made Northwest Ohio such an unhealthy place, as individual immune systems – bogged down with fighting recurrent parasitic infections – struggled to meet successive waves of epidemic disease.

This is an excerpt of my master's thesis, parts of which I am also carving up into academic articles.


Hooda Thunkit said...


A very vivid depiction of the region and the era before the swamp was tamed.

Did you catch WBGU's story on The Black Swamp, maybe 2 or 3 years ago?

They described the constant pall of smoke hanging over the swamp that was used to keep the mosquitoes down.

They also spent time dwelling on the miasma and ague, and the deaths...

It was an in-house production, as I recall.

Also depicted was the ways that the settlers drained Wood County by burying three boards at a time, to make a long tent-like drainage channel in the muck/mud and the attempts to make roads and rail roadbeds to traverse the swamp.

Most attempts failed until the swamp was suitably drained.

Interesting stuff ;-)

Lisa Renee said...

I enjoyed your article too mike, made me want to read your thesis...

I always found it interesting that the settlers died from diseases caused in part by conditions already present yet the Indians were killed by diseases we brought in.

Lisa Renee said...

I see your family grew larger by three....explains why I haven't seen as much of you round the blogosphere


historymike said...

That's part of it, although I have also been bogged down with work and some other projects.

Things starting to settle down now.