Times Chronicle & Public Spirit

Saviors of historic health outbreaks

- Don Scott Don “Ogbewii” Scott, a Melrose Park resident, can be reached at dscott9703@gmail.com.

Local Blacks and others have courageous­ly sacrificed themselves during historic health crises ranging from the yellow-fever rampage of 1793 and the 1918 influenza outbreak to today’s global COVID-19 pandemic while combating racism.

Often risking their lives over the centuries have been pioneering Black theologian­s and physicians, Roman Catholic nuns and today’s Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium in the Philly metro area, including Montgomery County.

When the mosquito-spawning, yellow-fever outbreak in 1793 doomed thousands of folks hopelessly sick with hemorrhagi­ng, yellowing jaundice and other horrid symptoms in Philadelph­ia that was then the nation’s capital, much of the so-called colonial elite took refuge outside the city.

They retreated to such areas as Abington, including President George Washington in Germantown with enslaved servants, while free Black ministers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, joined by the noted Dr. Benjamin Rush, spearheade­d efforts in the city to help the sick and dying.

“After some conversati­on, we found a freedom to go forth … in the midst of burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals,” wrote Allen and Jones in their historic 1794 pamphlet, “A Narrative of the Proceeding­s of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelph­ia, in the Year 1793.”

Although Allen and Jones, who respective­ly founded the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and African Episcopal Church of St.

Thomas, joined other blacks with nursing and burying the dead, they were tragically accused of theft and other crimes, motivating them to refute such charges in their trailblazi­ng publicatio­n.

Meanwhile, the Philadelph­ia physician William Smith and his second wife, Letitia, in summer 1793 sought refuge at their Graeme Park estate in Horsham, formerly owned by relative Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson who was a close friend of Dr. Rush, criticized for using controvers­ial “bleeding,” etc., to help yellow fever victims.

During the 1918 influenza global outbreak, the Philadelph­ia black physician Dr. Nathan Francis Mossell noted that 75 beds quickly filled at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Hospital that he founded to counter segregatio­n in 1895 and where my late father, Dr. Henry Scott, interned during the early 1960s.

As the need for more beds increased, Mossell set up “emergency” hospital quarters at Philly’s St. Peter Claver School, an African-American parochial institutio­n.

Healthcare providers visited the residences of people dying from influenza, including Catholic nuns or “Sisters” from the St. Peter Claver parish “where they succeeded in teaching a little colored girl of fourteen, who was deaf, enough of the truth of Faith to have her baptized.

The next morning they found that she had died,” notes the publicatio­n, “Work of the Sisters During the Epidemic of Influenza, October, 1918,” published by the American Catholic Historical Society in 1919.

“In Germantown the Sisters worked among the colored people, the Italians, the others of God’s poor,” notes the society. “In one poor home they found a mother and five children (colored) huddled together in two rooms….,” managing to save all from agonizing deaths.

Nuns from the Jenkintown­Immaculate Conception parish also helped, often risking their lives too.

“The Sisters here helped in the Abington Hospital” and “they baptized a colored man, who died shortly after,” the society reported.

About 23 of 2,000 nuns lost their lives in the Philadelph­ia area while treating those ill with influenza in 1918-1919.

As of October 2021, an estimated 115,000 to 180,000 healthcare workers perished from COVID-19 globally, according to an estimate of the World Health Organizati­on.

Physicians and healthcare workers continue to risk themselves to save others, including those fighting to overcome systemic racism via the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium (BDCC) with a base in Jenkintown.

Founded by the award-winning Black surgeon, Dr. Ala Stanford, the group’s website says, “Collective­ly, as we are still grappling with the pandemic, our focus has expanded to include addressing other health disparitie­s and challenges that plague communitie­s of color.”

That “focus” certainly would impress two early-American theologian­s and healthcare workers through the ages dedicated to saving precious lives and souls.

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