Thursday, January 23, 2014

Typhoid Fever

Recently I wrote about Warren Alwood, my husband’s great grandfather.  Warren’s father Charles Alwood/Allwood died during the Civil War of typhoid fever, and later, Warren’s adopted son Frankie died of it in 1900.  Just what was this scourge that broke up so many families and caused so much grief in those times? says that typhoid fever is most often caused by the Salmonella typhi or paratyphi bacteria.  The bacteria are deposited in water or food by a human carrier and then spread to others.  It is most commonly transmitted through polluted water supplies, poor public sanitation, or contaminated food, which explains why it was so prevalent on crowded immigrant ships, in overcrowded city slums, and in hastily-formed army camps.

Despite the development of a vaccine in 1901 which was used on the entire U.S. Army before WWI, nevertheless in the 1920s there were over 35,000 deaths in the United States from typhoid, as compared to about 400 cases annually today.  (Worldwide there are still 13 million cases annually, with over half a million deaths.)  The use of antibiotics have greatly reduced the mortality rate.

What did typhoid fever look like?  Encyclopaedia Brittanica ( says that after 10 to 14 days the early symptoms appear:  headache, aching, fever, restlessness, and perhaps nosebleeds, cough, and gastric upset.  Fever then develops, reaching 103 to 104 degrees.  By week two, a rose-colored rash appears on the body for four or five days, then disappears.  Then comes hemorrhage of the intestinal walls; after that, mental confusion and delirium sets in.  By week three, the typhoid victim is emaciated, suffers from acute abdominal distress, and the mental disturbance is pronounced.  By week four, for the lucky ones, the symptoms abate and recovery occurs—but if untreated, typhoid fever is fatal in about 25% of cases.

The most famous carrier of typhoid fever, Mary Mallon—“Typhoid Mary”—worked as a cook in New York City in the early 1900s.  When she refused to believe she was a carrier and give up working as a cook, even after repeated warnings, public health authorities had her quarantined for the last 26 years of her life. 

The most famous typhoid death is probably that of Queen Victoria’s husband Albert at age 42—although modern experts lean towards the theory that it was probably something more chronic like Crohn’s disease.  Victoria blamed their eldest son the Prince of Wales’ wild escapades for causing her husband’s death, and she never forgave her son for it—nor did she ever stop wearing black and mourning her beloved Prince Albert.

But most typhoid deaths were of the more ordinary kind, like my husband’s great-great-grandfather Charles Alwood, who died in a Union Army camp in North Carolina in July of 1865, and young Frankie Alwood, who died in 1900 in a small town in Ohio at the tender age of 14.

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