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November 2001


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"Daniel H. Weiskotten" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 20 Nov 2001 21:08:47 -0500
text/plain (61 lines)
At 12:51 PM 11/15/01 -0600, you wrote:
>I've often wondered what
>became of "Genesee Fever." Settlement of certain parts of western New York
>was delayed by what the settlers called "Genesee Fever" or "Lake Fever."
>Later, people determined that this was probably several diseases, including
>malaria, typhus, and typhoid fever. At some point, the problem seems to have
>resolved itself, and it's never been clear to me how that happened. Some
>sources suggest that drainage eventually eliminated the mosquito-borne
>diseases, but I have trouble with explanations that imply there are no more
>marshes or mosquitoes in Upstate New York. Can anyone help me with this?
>                        Scott Monje

Carl Carmer wrote a novel entitled _Genesee Fever_ (1941) but it is
impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction about this disease.  I
do not doubt that the actual mosquito-transmitted malaria that we know
today (and which was known throughout the world then) was present in
western New York, but there are so many other things that it could have
been.  Then again, the deaths could have been hastened by the cures -
bleeding, purging, mercury ...

Somehow in all my research I have, until recently, managed to miss out on
William Wyckoff's excellent book _The Developer's Frontier, The Making of
the Western New York Landscape_ (1988 Yale Univ. Press).

In this he mentions the fear that the swamps did cause a bit of
consternation about fevers and agues, which they called often called Lake
Fever or Genesee Fever.  Joseph Ellicott had noted that the fear was
bolstered by members of his Holland Land Co. work crews falling ill in
swampy sections.  There seemed to be no contemporary connection between
disease and mosquitos, and most problems with swamps were attributed to
swamp vapors and "bad air" (mal aria = bad air).  Ellicott knew that the
swamps were rich bottom lands and believed that the problem of "bad air"
could be overcome by ditching the swamps.  In 1805 and 1806 the "malaria"
was so widespread that the Doctor in Batavia had to call on Ellicott for
assistance in procurring medicines to help the suffering settlers.

(from other sources):
For years later the unknown attacker killed the unsuspecting, and always it
was attributed to the swamps and the bad air that eminated from them.  It
hit people as they were traveling, workers on the Erie Canal in the 1820s
dropped like proverbial flies, it wiped out families, it made people sick
for a while and then left them alone until the next season.  But, was it
really mosquito borne malaria?  No one seems to know.  The common
denominator was working around wet areas and swamps.

In some speculations it was the widespread availability of contaminated
drinking water.  They knew nothing of germs, and to boil water to make it
safe for drinking was unknown.  Many of the symptoms and the outcome of the
"malaria" seem very similar to typhoid fever, intestinal parasites,
dysentary and food poisoning.

For plenty of fun reading try this on-line text:

        Dan W.