Our History: Webster studied diseases before compiling dictionary

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A number of epidemics plagued the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries. Outbreaks of yellow fever, malaria and smallpox affected people, especially those located, as were New Yorkers, near seaports engaged in trade and receiving immigrants from other countries.

Included among these were those from the islands of the Southern Hemisphere. Much blame for the spread of these diseases came from our lack of knowledge of the role of sanitation and suitable living conditions necessary in a crowded city.

But there were those who were increasingly concerned not only in the medical community but from other fields. Among these was Noah Webster, who worked as a journalist in the city and became one of our first epidemiologists. His later work in another field, however, was to lead to his fame.

My interest in Webster’s role in epidemiology was piqued by our current concerns with the threat of biological warfare and bioterrorism.

A contemporary of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, Webster was an advanced thinker on all questions and issues of his day. During the period he lived and worked in our city, Webster, an editor of a daily newspaper, wrote enough to fill 28 volumes, though these writings were never compiled. There were, however, subjects of interest to him that he felt were not suitable for newspapers to print. One of these was his interest in epidemiology.

The scourge of his time were the diseases that took so many lives in the 18th and 19th centuries. He had experienced the desperate illnesses of his children when they suffered through scarlet fever and seen his brother almost die of smallpox when he was in the Army. Yellow fever was a regular threat in almost every city.

Pondering the questions “What caused these epidemics?” and “What treatment should be accorded them?” was to lead him to learn more about why there were disagreements among doctors about the causes and treatments of these diseases. He pursued his efforts to learn more about these ongoing epidemics, always questioning.

Disheartened by the words he wrote daily for his newspaper, which soon became obsolete, he wanted instead to gather and preserve his findings in a book. For this reason he resigned his post as editor and moved his family to New Haven, Conn.

Two years later he produced two large volumes on infectious diseases. He continued to write to doctors asking questions about atmosphere, climate, geography, treatments and their opinions on causes. It was known epidemics of smallpox in the Caribbean Islands spread to our shores and one of these, notably in 1751, caused a serious case of smallpox in then-future President Washington.

While researching for his volumes on infectious diseases, he turned to the best English dictionary of the day, published in 1755 by Dr. Samuel Johnson. Like other dictionaries of the day Webster found many errors and his searches in all the famous libraries at Yale, Philadelphia, New York and Boston failed to find the scientific words he needed.

By 1800 Webster was proficient in 12 languages and consulted books and dictionaries. He knew he must write a good dictionary of the English language as his life’s work. This task took him 20 years and he completed a dictionary which was completely American in spelling and pronunciation. He introduced to the world such homespun words as “whittle,” “tackle,” “shaver” and “chore.”

In 1811, after decades of yellow fever epidemics, the state Assembly commissioned “the laying out of streets in a way to promote health in the city and free and abundant circulation.” In the yellow fever epidemic in the city in 1822, the disease penetrated not only the poorer sections of the city but broke out in the so-called “stylish” section inhabited by the rich.

The municipal government declared everything below City Hall an infected district. As a result Brooklyn received an influx of the well-to-do, enabled by the ferry which plied between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Brooklyn Heights experienced a real estate boom and by 1839 Brooklyn became the first commuter suburb of Manhattan. As in earlier times epidemics affected the social, economic and political life of our city.

Webster will be remembered as an early if not the first epidemiologist of our nation, though it is his dictionary that has defined his fame. The value of his work as a record of direct observation of epidemic diseases in our country should not be forgotten.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

Updated 7:08 pm, September 14, 2011
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