Bette Davis knew a thing or two about yellow fever. Presumably as a consolation prize for her having lost the role of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” she was handed the part of Julie Marsden in the 1938 film “Jezebel.” In this costume drama set in New Orleans, Davis plays a headstrong belle who seeks redemption for her profligate ways by volunteering to enter quarantine in order to nurse a former suitor struck down with “yellow jack.”
Historical fact is the basis of this fictional narrative, which is framed by the very real epidemic of 1853. Outbreaks of yellow fever plagued New Orleans throughout the 19th century, but the most significant mortality rate was recorded that year: nearly 8,000 residents. Viewers of the film are left to wonder if Bette herself will succumb along with her lost love, played by Henry Fonda.
As a current exhibition at the McKissick Museum in Columbia makes clear, New Orleans was not the only coastal city in the American South to fear the periodic onset of this mosquito-borne viral disease. Charleston endured periodic warm weather epidemics from the late-17th to the late-19th centuries.
“Black Medicine/White Bodies: An Investigation of Yellow Fever Epidemics in Charleston 1854-1871” not only covers the subject matter indicated by its label but also ventures far beyond that single topic to examine the lengths to which the general population of our state, both black and white, were willing to go in quest of good health. Indeed, the north gallery on the museum’s second floor is chockablock with artifacts and informative text about early medical practice.
Entering the space itself is like stepping back in time; and to emphasize that fact, visitors must first cross a small wooden bridge and step across the threshold of a four-sided wooden structure meant to replicate the confines of a “pest house” or quarantine station. Visibly ill passengers disembarking in Charleston in the 18th century were not permitted free entry into the coastal city. Between 1707 and 1796, four consecutive lazarettos were built on Sullivan’s Island where these new arrivals spent from 10 to 40 days separated from the general population until they no longer exhibited signs of possible contagion.
After spending some time in mock quarantine, museum visitors then have a choice of three exits from the pest house in order to gain access to the rest of the exhibition. Immediately behind the structure is information on the city’s struggle with yellow fever. To the right are exhibits featuring artifacts, many on loan from the Waring Library at MUSC, focused on early Western remedies, some of extremely dubious efficacy. To the left are exhibits detailing a host of folk cures derived from either Native American or African tradition or both. Many of these herbal cures have, ironically enough, survived…