Reflections on the 1839 yellow fever outbreak in Florida and South Carolina, with maps

B[enjamin] B. Strobel, late Physician of the Charleston Marine Hospital, AN ESSAY ON THE SUBJECT OF YELLOW FEVER, INTENDED TO PROVE ITS TRANSMISSIBILITY. Charleston: Printed by Asa J. Muir, 73 East-Bay Street, 1840.
8vo (9"h x 5 1/8"w). 224pp plus three folding lithographic maps, uncolored. Early paper-covered boards with spine in plum cloth, faded. Some edge tears to pages expertly mended, and a 2" binding tears to St. Augustine and Charleston plans. Mild to moderate foxing and waterstaining throughout.

A rare and all-but-unknown epidemiological study of yellow fever by Charleston, South Carolina physician Benjamin Strobel, issued following the widespread outbreak of the disease in 1839. Illustrated by a map of the Florida coast and plans of St. Augustine and Charleston; to my knowledge the latter are the earliest disease maps produced south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Historically in America, medical opinion had been divided as to the cause of yellow fever, with some arguing that it was produced by local phenomena, usually associated with human waste or other filth, which produced dangerous “miasms”; while “contagionists” argued that it could be transmitted from person to person and place to place. Both parties of course had a point, though for decades they missed the essential role played by mosquitoes in transmission.

In arguing for the “transmissibility” of yellow fever, Strobel tries to split the difference between the two schools:

“…we shall make use of the word transmissibillity, as embracing both modes of propagation, whether by infection or contagion. Now what we mean by the transmissibility of the Yellow Fever, is this–that if the atmosphere of Charleston, (or any other city) be in such a condition, as to predispose to some form of febrile disease, and then, and under such circumstances vessels arriving from Havana or Matanzas where the disease is prevailing at the time, bringing in their holds a quantity of fruit, together with the epidemic atmosphere of those places; on this atmosphere and vegetable effluvia being discharged among the shipping in harbor, whose crews are pre-disposed to take the disease, our atmosphere may become so infected, as to generate that particular form of fever.” (pp. 10-11)

Strobel illustrates his argument with three maps, all to my knowledge entirely unremarked by map collectors and scholars. The first, “Diagram of the Coast of Florida from St. Augustine to Mala Compra” (6 3/4″h x 6″w at neat line) is intended to support his argument that the fever arrived at St. Augustine from Havana. The second, “Plan of the Northern Part of the City of St. Augustine” (13 3/4″ x 11″) is a thematic map illustrating the sequence of cases in that part of the city. The third, “Plan of the Wharves of Charleston, S. C.” (14 1/4″ x 9 1/2″)shows the sequence of cases in that neighborhood. The maps were lithographed by engraver, lithographer, silver designer and medallist William Keenan (1810?-1865), whose career included stretches in both Charleston and Philadelphia. Among other maps, he also produced a map of Florida for Myer Moses Cohen’s Notice of Florida and the Campaigns (1836) and a Plan of the City and Neck of Charleston, S. C. (1844).

Benjamin B. Strobel
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, I quote liberally from an on-line biography of Strobel

“Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel was another one of the colorful Keys inhabitants, obviously well educated, traveled and willing to take on an adventure.


“Born in Charleston, South Carolina on December 5, 1803, he graduated from the Medical College of South Carolina with the class of 1826. His thesis was “Aralia Spinosa or Prickly Heat.” The following year he married a Miss Mary Jane Stewart and joined the Medical Society,  presumably going into medical practice.
“There is not much of his early life known. Dr. Strobel’s travels are followed by a series of articles he wrote for Charleston Courier. He published and wrote for the Key West Gazette. His travels and articles are quite lengthy.  As lengthy as Strobel is with other details, he is not specific with dates. He began his first article for his departure from Charleson for Key West in 1829 and we may assume he arrived at Indian Key in 1829. Certain names were only abbreviated and whether Dr. Strobel or the editor concealed the selected full names is not certain. James Audubon cites his acquaintance with Dr. Strobel in his travels. It was Strobel who obtained the specimen of the “Mango humming bird, Anthracothorax nigricollis” given to James Audubon….


“After leaving Key West in September 1832, and returning again to sail to Sanibel Island in early 1833, Strobel only returned to Florida once again.  Evidently Dr. Strobel went into some extent of medical practice upon his return to Charleston in 1833.  As has been mentioned, he did participate in the Second Seminole War with the South Carolina Volunteers for three months in 1836 as a regimental surgeon.


“From Dr. Joseph Waring’s, History of Medicine in South Carolina, he states, “Strobel was professor of anatomy in the Medical College of South Carolina  and in 1836 advertised that he proposed to give a private course of anatomical instruction ‘during the present season,’ to commence about the fifth of November at his rooms at the west end of Queen Street.”  We can assume that he was somewhat in this capacity when he gave his second opinion on Chief Osceola in late January, 1838, as the Chief died on January 30, 1838.


“Dr. Strobel made his last known trip to Florida in 1839 when he went to St. Augustine during its yellow fever epidemic.  Charleston was undergoing a yellow fever epidemic in 1838 and 1839.  Dr. Strobel used spot maps in a small way to chart locations of fever patients.  He advocated quarantine, but held steadfast with the then common beliefs of “miasmas” or certain fumes or vapors were the cause.


“He wrote a significant paper titled, “An Essay on the Subject of Yellow Fever Intended to Prove its Transmissibility.”  His deductions were very advanced for that era as he mentioned rains and mosquitoes.  It was not until 1881 that Cuban physician, Carlos Finlay, clearly enunciated that the mosquito was responsible for communicating yellow fever from person to person.  Dr. Strobel also contributed three other significant medical articles, however it was his treatise on yellow fever for which he was acclaimed in 1840.


“Strange as it will seem, he was dropped from the same Medical Society in 1842. The reason stated was for the non-payment of dues.  Few in the know believe that the real reason for dismissal was non-payment of dues, but the reason remains conjecture.


“The author lost track of Dr. Strobel until his death on March 24, 1849.  The years from 1842 to 1849 must have been a  significant period of time for someone as distinguished as he was.  It is known that he died at his brother-in-law’s house, Robert Lyle Stewart.  For this reason, some deduce that he had met with financial hardships. His wife and at least two children survived him.  His widow, Mary Elizabeth (Stewart) moved to Bath, Georgia.” (Jerry Wilkinson, “Dr. Benjamin B. Strobel” on the web site of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper [Florida] Keys)

I have never before encountered Strobel’s work or the individual maps, and RareBookHub records no other copies having appeared in the trade. As of October 2021 OCLC lists no fewer than 151 holdings in institutional collections, but I am certain that the majority of these, possibly a large majority, are electronic editions only.

Sabin #92876.