A scarce volume of early American medical history. With an important article by Valentine Seaman featuring two all-but unknown thematic maps of yellow fever outbreaks in Manhattan, generally accepted as the earliest published epidemiological maps and preceding Snow’s work on cholera by half a century.
The Medical Repository was the first American medical journal, founded by Samuel Mitchill, Elihu Hubbard Smith and Edward Miller and published in New York between 1797 and 1824. The journal’s broad mission was to “illustrate the connection subsisting between Climate, Soil, Temperature, Diet, &c. and Health” (p.1), with a particular focus on epidemic diseases such as cholera, smallpox and yellow fever. Unfortunately, the journal ran out of momentum with the death or retirement of its founders and ceased publication in 1824.
As subscriptions increased, the publishers reprinted early parts, so as to offer complete runs of the issues to all purchasers. Offered here is the 1804 third edition of Volume I of the Repository, which had first appeared in 1797-98. The volume includes four issues, covering a wide subjects, beginning with a long article on the plague that ravaged Athens early in the Peloponnesian War and ending with an indignant letter from a Philadelphia physician objecting to Seaman’s article on yellow fever.
Valentine Seaman (1770-1817)
Seaman first trained as a doctor under Dr. Nicholas Romayne, a founder of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. From 1796 on Seaman served as Attending Surgeon at New York Hospital. His particular research interests were shaped by family tragedy: His eldest child died of smallpox in 1795, and Seaman became interested in disease control, particularly in the work of the Englishman Edward Jenner, a pioneer of vaccination. Inspired by Jenner, Seaman became the first American doctor to offer the procedure, starting with his own family.
Seaman’s medical interests were rather wide-ranging. For instance, his Dissertation on the Mineral Waters of Saratoga; containing, a topographical description of the country, and the situation of the several Springs (1793) described the medicinal springs of the Saratoga region. Seaman was also an American pioneer in improving midwifery training and practices and, as a Quaker, was prominent in the New York Manumission Society. Two of his sons, James Valentine and Valentine, Jr., were well-regarded doctors, and the former was also a mapmaker and publisher.
In the 1790s, U.S. coastal cities of the eastern seaboard were blighted by successive waves of yellow fever outbreaks, with one in Philadelphia in 1793 killing ten per cent of the city’s population. A number of smaller outbreaks occurred in New York, and these were the focus of Seaman’s research, which, as an attending doctor, he witnessed at first hand. He turned this research into a path-breaking article, “An Inquiry into the Cause of the Prevalence of the YELLOW FEVER in New-York”, which appeared in Vol. I No. 3 of the Medical Repository.
18th– and 19th-century epidemiologists were divided into “contagionist” and “anticontagionist” camps, the former arguing that disease was spread by human interaction, the latter arguing for environmental causes such as “miasmatic” conditions. Seaman was an anticontagionist, broadly convinced that squalid sanitary conditions were a leading factor in spreading epidemic diseases. His detailed clinical and environmental descriptions in the “Inquiry” of the yellow fever outbreaks are of considerable value to later analysts. Unfortunately, while in the case of yellow fever he was broadly correct in his resistance to “contagionist” ideas, he—and many others of a similar mindset–overlooked the vital role of mosquitoes in transmission.
Seaman illustrates his article with two untitled maps, both street plans of small areas of lower Manhattan. The first map is centered on Roosevelt Street, where a drain emptied into the East River.
“Every ebb-tide exposed at least eight hundred square yards of its surface, covered with the numerous perishable materials furnished by the different streets of that crowded part of the town which descend into this common sewer, in addition to the other putrid matters that such handy places are always collecting.” (p. 307)
On the plan Seaman plots the locations of five deaths during the 1796 outbreak (numbers 1-5), of which four had occurred within fifty yards of the drain. He also plots several cases of yellow fever that ended in recovery (circles with dots), as well as “other cases of fever, of a suspicious nature” (open circles). The second plan addresses the 1797 outbreak, focusing on the area around the Fly Market, also adjacent to the East River. Once again the locations of fatalities are numbered, and tiny crosses mark waterside spots used by the populace as open privies, where the ground was “spattered… with their excrementitious depositions”.
The accompanying text lists the fatalities in each outbreak with a doctor’s dispassionate (graphic) account of the symptoms and effects on each victim, showing their residence, linked to the plans. The plans powerfully amplify the argument of the text that there was a causal relationship between the outbreaks and nearby concentrations of open filth. This is to my knowledge the first time disease had been mapped in print, and the first time maps had been used to make an epidemiological argument. Surprisingly, despite the significance and utility of the maps as a mechanism to illustrate Seaman’s theories, the publishers of the Medical Repository did not mention the maps in their advertisements announcing this issue (New York Commercial Advertiser, February 1, 1798).
The maps are all but unknown to cartographic historians and unrecorded by Wheat & Brun in their classic Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800, a remarkably complete attempt to “describe the entire known cartographical contribution of the American press prior to 1800.” That the maps are so little known has been a disservice to Seaman’s reputation. Today, all but specialists in the subject associate the London doctor John Snow (1813-1858) with being a founder of modern epidemiology, through his mapping of a cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district in 1854, thus showing that the outbreak was centred on public water pump on Broad Street. Yet, his work was preceded by over fifty years by Seaman’s pioneering work in New York.
Provenance and references
The front endpaper bears the printed bookplate of Samuel Collins of Danville, Vermont. This could be the Samuel Collins (ca. 1764-1852), who joined the Continental Army at the age of 16, served at West Point and elsewhere, and commanded an infantry company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire during the War of 1812 (Danville, VT North Star, Nov. 27, 1852, p. 3) There is however no mention of Collins’ profession, which seems unusual had he been a physician. Samuel married Susannah Pope in 1812, and in 1815 Susannah gave birth to Samuel, Jr., whom I assume is our man, though the local papers give little information about his activities. I do find in 1884 an article about the grave illness of Susan Collins, aged 90, “widow of the late Dr. Collins formerly of Danville”.
Sabin #47327. Maps not described in Wheat & Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800. For background on the maps of Valentine Seaman see for example Brian Altonen, “ Valentine Seaman 1797 (1804)—the Black Plague or Yellow Fever of New York City ” at brianaltonenmph.com.