Mar 17, 2006

A Pocket Of Pestilence: Northwest Ohio’s Nineteenth-Century Reputation As An Unhealthy Region

This is an excerpt of an ongoing research/book project that I am developing; I'll be posting more excerpts in the coming weeks as I do some revisions. Any feedback will be greatly appreciated.

Inhabiting an area notorious for its dense marshes and fens, the young 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.

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 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!

Left: Anopheles quadrimaculatus

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.


Anonymous said...

Very cool, Mike. I learned a lot.

Stephanie said...

Very interesting! I never knew malaria made it so far north.

One thing: If you're going to publish this as a collection, is posting it as bits and pieces (which is also recognized as "publishing" it) going to affect your ability to publish your work in it's entirity? I don't know how that works in the academic world, but it can be problematic in the fiction world.

Other than a very interesting, unusual bit of subject matter I have no other useful comments...yet. I'll re-read it fresh to see if I see anything else.

Stephanie said...

Now that I am refreshed and have read over it again, it's made me curious as to what the Ohioans used to treat the illness (folk medicine) and what steps they took to try to counter this image.

Hooda Thunkit said...


This is a favorite subject of mine, although I am not well read on the subject.

I still have to have a browser tab for open, but that's how I learn ;-)

I found the detailed explanations of the drainage attempts most fascinating.

The early settlers knew that the land needed to be drained if they were to prosper and resorted to some "interesting" schemes to drain the land and make it passable.

WBGU-TV did a very nice narrative on this a few years ago that was very enjoyable to watch.

Digging drainage systems, including burying boards in the fields to form drainage channels (ducts) and planking the roads only to have them sink, and following the planks with logs only to have them sink, were some of the schemes that were attempted.

Are you looking for any hard to find resource material that I may have? All you need to do is ask, I have collected some old and somewhat rare items in the past.