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The Typhoid Epidemic of 1890-91

The summer of 1890 saw a normal number of typhoid fever cases in Lowell.  During September the city experienced a slight increase.  It wasn't until November, however, that physicians and city officials noticed an alarming increase in the number of cases and related deaths.

     At a regular meeting of the Lowell Board of Health on December 2,1890, Agent Bates reported, "that there has been 122 cases of typhoid fever reported during the month of November." The number of typhoid cases that month eventually resulted in 28 deaths.

     The large number of cases of typhoid was brought to the attention of the State Board of Health in late November.  The purity of the Merrimack River had regularly been tested by the state.  William Sedgwick, a state biologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was sent to Lowell to determine if the increase in typhoid was caused by a change in the chemical nature of the river.

     As soon as he arrived, an analysis was made of the Merrimack River water.  A second analysis was done in December.  After these chemical studies were conducted, the test results revealed the water to be "reasonably pure."  However, a chemical analysis was not as thorough as a bacteriological analysis.  During the latter half of December, Professor Sedgwick began conducting a microscopic examination of the germs and microbes found in Merrimack River water.  The germs were to be incubated and watched for several weeks to determine if typhoid fever microbes were present.

     The Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers had been excluded from the act of 1878, which related to the pollution of ponds and rivers used as water supplies.  This statute forbid the depositing of sewage into rivers from which water was taken for drinking purposes.  The exclusion of these two rivers was based on the assumption that they were too large for contamination to take place.

     Between October 1890 and March 1891, 452 cases of typhoid fever were reported in Lowell, with a death count of 106.  It is estimated that the actual number of cases exceeded 700, for many physicians did not report every occurrence of the disease.  With a population of over 77,000 in 1890, this number indicates that almost 1 % of the city's population was affected by the disease.

     No one was safe from this deadly threat.  It invaded households in every ward of the city and struck down residents of all ages.  The disease was evenly distributed, with no significant numbers evident in any particular location, sewer line or topographical area. The onset of the disease was sudden and often accompanied by a chill.  Temperatures of 102 to 104 degrees would often remain high for up to three weeks.  Symptoms included a slow pulse, nausea, diarrhea, red spots and an enlarged spleen.  Intestinal hemorrhage often resulted.  The average duration was 27 days.

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