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A Closer Look

Banner photo by Dr Ernest C. Withers from the  "I AM A Man Portfolio," collection of the Pink Palace Museum.

Rooted in History & Culture

Racism is so rooted in the history and culture of the United States and Memphis that it is systemic and institutionalized. It is part of how we operate as a society, knowingly and unknowingly, through laws, actions, and beliefs that create a system of inequality and power that favors whites and excludes non-whites. This month, we will explore how systemic racism has historically impacted our region, and how it affects us today.

The Pink Palace Museum’s institutional history is not exempt from systemic racism. Our museum system is composed of several separate facilities, each with a unique history of exclusion based on race and power dynamics that favor whites. Before any of these buildings were part of the museum, the land was part of the Chickasaw Nation. We begin this post by recognizing and acknowledging that we occupy land that once belonged to them. The Chickasaw Nation used this land for hunting grounds, but white settlers’ desire for land led to violence and unfair treaties across the region, forcing Indigenous peoples to leave their homeland. This forced migration, which had the support of Andrew Jackson, a Tennessean who founded Memphis and was President of the United States, is one of the first instances of institutionalized racism in the region.

Before there was a Pink Palace mansion or the Chickasaw Gardens subdivision, this land was part of several dairy farms. In 1922, Clarence Saunders purchased 155-acres between Central and Poplar Avenues to build a palatial estate. There were black families already living on the land he purchased.

On May 29, 1922, workers removed at least one black family from their home and burned it to the ground the same day to clear the site for construction. While we do not know the names of these individuals, we have a photograph of the event. Learning their story is an ongoing research project.  

The Pink Palace mansion became a part of the Memphis Park System in 1926 after Saunders declared bankruptcy and lost his estate. The Garden Development Corporation bought the property and donated the mansion to the City to be used as a museum. The original property transfer deed between the company and the City of Memphis explicitly stated that the building could only “be used wholly and exclusively for public uses for the benefit of persons of the Caucasian race.” The deed also included a clause for the forfeiture of the property and its return to the corporation if any part of the contract was broken. During the years that the museum was segregated, the institution offered separate programs for white and black children. Classes for white children were held at the museum while programs for black children were held at other locations. In 1957, the museum began to offer a series of Saturday science programs at LeMoyne College for black students and their parents.

In the 1950s, black community leaders petitioned the Park Commission to integrate public parks and cultural institutions, but they were repeatedly denied. As their letters went unanswered, some black Memphians began to move toward direct, nonviolent action. In March 1960, students from LeMoyne College and Owen Junior College organized the first sit-ins in the city. On April 19, 1960, five students demonstrated at the Pink Palace Museum. Allen Stiles, Robert Cox, Ernice Taylor, Barbara Stazes and Ernestine Hill met at LeMoyne College that morning and organizers told them that they would be desegregating the Pink Palace. Other students were sent out on buses and in cars as decoys to draw police attention away from the real protest. The five demonstrators entered the museum around 10:45 AM. According to newspaper accounts, Mary Jo Darden, the office secretary, saw the students enter and asked Ladzar Carrafa, the museum’s porter, to request that they leave. The students ignored him and went upstairs to the exhibit gallery. Next, Darden informed Earl Fuller, the director of the museum’s youth department, about the situation. Fuller also asked the students to leave. When the students ignored him and continued looking at the museum exhibits, he called the police and instructed the students to remain in the area. The police arrived and arrested the students. They were taken to the city jail, where they spent the next twenty-four hours before being charged with disturbing the peace, threatened breach of peace, disorderly conduct, and loitering. The Memphis NAACP paid the students’ bonds and provided lawyers.

The next year, eight black attorneys representing 11 men filed a lawsuit against the City of Memphis, the Board of Directors, and the Memphis Park Commission to integrate public facilities. On May 15, 1961, a federal judge approved the Park Commission’s plan to gradually integrate the park system over a 10-year period. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and requested that the desegregation of the park system occur immediately. However, the Appeals Court upheld the lower court’s ruling. The plaintiffs appealed again, and the United States Supreme Court heard the case in May 1963. With regard to the museum, the City attorneys argued that they were not opposed to integrating the museum, but they were worried that ending segregation would violate the original property deed. In his majority opinion, Justice Arthur Goldberg noted that the city did not meet its burden of proof that delaying the integration of the city parks was constitutional. He also stressed that the best way to guarantee civil peace would be to follow and respect the law instead of delaying its application.

The Pink Palace Museum was singled out for individual consideration because of the property deed. The Court ruled that the possibility that the City may lose the property was irrelevant to whether or not the City could constitutionally support segregation and required the City to integrate the museum. In the days following the verdict, the City quietly desegregated the Pink Palace and the remaining segregated parks without any of the feared violence or rioting and without losing the museum property.

Systemic racism has had a lasting legacy on the museum. After the museum was integrated, the exhibits still reflected the history of white Memphians without considering the unique experiences of black or brown citizens. The board of trustees did not begin to include non-white members until 1969. It took several decades for the museum to begin to incorporate African American history into its permanent exhibits. In the early 1980s, the museum developed an exhibit titled “Historic Black Memphians” and published a booklet of the biographies of the men and women included in the exhibit. The museum did maintain a collection of artifacts related to black history, but the collection did not fully represent the African American history of the region. In 2005, staff members created an initiative to systematically collect artifacts that related to the history of African Americans in the Mid-South in order to address this problem. Annual temporary exhibits have highlighted this growing African American collection.

As a museum, we strive for authenticity and recognize the intersections between past and present events. We promote our space as one of learning and dialogue about past and current injustices in hopes of educating ourselves and others to prevent them in the future. Our next steps include expanding our collection to include other non-represented communities, inviting people of color to decide how their stories are told, and including their histories in new permanent exhibits.

In the next post, we will explore the historic ties to slavery and indentured servitude at the Mallory-Neely House and the Magevney House.

All images are from the Pink Palace Museum Collection.

A Closer Look - Previous Posts

April 2020 - Yellow Fever

April 2 - A Brief Introduction to the American Plague 

April 7 - First Responders – Organizations in Motion

April 9 - Help from Unlikely People

April 14 - The Disease – Spread, Symptoms, Treatment

April 16 - Evacuation & Quarantine

April 21 - Economic Effects 

April 23 - Assessing the Toll

April 28 - Reform & After-Effects

April 30 - Discovering the Cause

May 2020 - Antarctica Past, Present & Future

May 5 - A Closer Look at The End of The Earth

May 7 - Living at the End of The Earth

May 12 - Meet the Seals

May 14 - Seal Bodies - Adapting to a Harsh, Frigid Climate

May 19 - The Amazing Weddell Seals

May 21 - Warming Waters in Antarctica Could Affect Invertebrates

May 26 - Global Warming and Greenhouse Gases

May 28 - A Greener Antarctica

June 2020 - Systemic Racism & History

June 4 - Rooted in History & Culture


A Greener Antarctica - May 28, 2020

Greenhouse gases become trapped in the atmosphere and spread to all areas of the globe, regardless of where their emission occurred. These gases not only effect the temperature and acidity levels of the Antarctic waters, but also the temperature levels on land. Antarctica is covered in many sheets of ice, and as temperatures rise, the ice is melting away, allowing vegetation to grow.

Antarctica was not always a frozen desert. Fossils uncovered by scientists and explorers have revealed that Antarctica was once a lush land with many thriving plant species. Fast forward millions of years and we can see that the climate has changed dramatically. However, even though Antarctica is the coldest, driest, iciest, highest, and windiest continent, that does not mean it is completely devoid of plant life. Mosses have been growing on the northernmost, rocky stretches of land near the Antarctic peninsula for thousands of years. The coastline there tends to be warmer and wetter than areas inland, which creates a more hospitable environment for the mosses. However, with the warming climate, mosses are now spreading and growing in areas that used to be uninhabitable for them. Principal investigator, David Beilman, and his team are examining ancient moss beds to better understand the conditions in which they thrived. With that knowledge, they hope to uncover what a warmer and greener Antarctica will look like in the future.

Moss grows in a stratified, or layered, manner. This means that new moss grows on top of the old, partially decomposed moss from long ago. The cold temperatures keep the old moss from completely decomposing. This preserves the ecological and environmental history of the time in which the moss lived, effectively creating what Beilman describes as “little time capsules frozen in the past” (Lucibella). When Beilman’s team study these ancient mosses, they take deep samples of the peat using a drill to remove cores from the Earth. The layers of moss can be several feet thick which can equate to thousands of years of ecological information. To date the samples, they use radiocarbon dating which compares different carbon isotopes in the sample taken. The team is also taking samples of black moss. Black moss refers to, the dead plants that were once covered by a glacier. Climate change causes the ice to melt, exposing the black moss once again after many years.

Beilman and his team are also studying the rocky cliffside moss with drones and thermal cameras to track whether the mosses are becoming too hot. The surface area of hot moss can have around a 30-degree temperature difference from the surrounding environment. This greatly effects the sensitive organisms that live near the moss because it reradiates the heat it takes in from the sun out onto the organisms.

When moss becomes too hot, it also effects how much carbon dioxide the moss pulls out of the air. The heat stunts the moss’s growth and makes it unable to take in carbon dioxide. It merely survives. Beilman estimates that of the near 300 square kilometers of moss in Antarctica, the moss removes around 30,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere per year. Therefore, if mosses become too hot in Antarctica, the amount of carbon taken from the atmosphere will lower significantly. This leaves a greater amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. To monitor the rising heat levels and patches of moss, two weather stations have been established near Palmer station. They focus their attention on the specific microclimates of mosses and collect data across different weather conditions to gather more information on the changing situation. With that knowledge, they hope to apply what they have learned to other moss sites across the Antarctic peninsula.

But why should we care about what goes on in Antarctica? Does is really matter what happens there? Yes! Even though geographically we are very far removed from Antarctica, we can still feel the ripple-effect of what happens at the South Pole across the globe. Glacial melting has raised sea levels. Extreme weather, including tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and hurricanes to name a few, have become more common. Habitats and ecosystems have been lost. All of these have occurred due to greenhouse gas emissions that warm the Earth and spur on climate change. Knowing the impact we make on multiple areas of the world, including the Antarctic, is the first step to creating a positive change that can help repair some of the damage done.

We hope you have enjoyed taking a closer look at Antarctica with us these past few weeks. Let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “Masses of Mosses.” The Antarctic Sun Science News, 2020, https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/4420/


Photo Credits:

Derek Ford Collecting Samples – Mike Lucibella

Peat Samples – Mike Lucibella

Drone – Mike Lucibella

Mound of Peat – Mike Lucibella


Global Warming and Greenhouse Gases - May 26, 2020

As climate change continues to become a global issue, more and more research on greenhouse gases is being conducted. Greenhouse gases become trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, which distributes heat across the globe, regardless of where the emission occurred. This creates a number of problems with changing temperatures, including the warming of oceans. However, greenhouse gases not only effect the temperature of waters but also the chemistry of the oceans. The oceans absorb the greenhouse gases as well as the heat they produce in the atmosphere, causing the water to become more acidic. Charles Amsler and James McClintock, co-principal investigators, and their team at Palmer station, Antarctica are studying rising acidity levels in the Southern Ocean.

Antarctic waters are more susceptible to the absorption of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide because cold waters absorb the gases more efficiently than warmer waters. Now, the Southern Ocean acidity levels rest at around 8.1 on the pH scale, which measures how acidic or basic substances are on a scale of 0 to 14. The closer to 0, the more acidic something is. The closer to 14, the more basic something is. Neutral substances are near the middle point of 7. If acidity levels rise in the Southern Ocean by merely one point on the scale, this can have a major effect on the creatures who live there. Hannah Oswalt, a PhD student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and member of Amsler and McClintock’s team explains this perfectly, stating “If you go down one point on the logarithmic scale, that’s 10 times more acidic. So, it’s a really big difference even though on paper it may not look like a huge difference.” (Lucibella)

Amsler and McClintock’s team is focusing on how rising acidity levels effect marine amphipods, which are tiny crustaceans. Even though these crustaceans are very small, they play an important role, or niche, in the Southern Ocean’s niche ecosystems. Amphipods are consumed by larger fish and invertebrates, but they also have developed a symbiotic relationship with macroalgae, or seaweeds, which allows these niche ecosystems to thrive. A symbiotic relationship like the one between amphipods and macroalgae means that it is a mutually beneficial relationship. These Antarctic amphipods live in macroalgae forests, which helps shield them from predators. Fish that consume the crustaceans do not like the taste of the seaweeds, so the crustaceans are protected.

In return for their safety, amphipods provide a very important service to the seaweed forests. The crustaceans eat species that are even smaller than they are, which like to live on the blades of the macroalgae. If the amphipods did not eat the smaller creatures, the macroalgae could be eaten or they would not have enough light and nutrients to thrive. The abundance of amphipods in the Antarctic macroalgae forests is unlike anywhere else in the world and Amsler and McClintock’s team are capitalizing on this by studying how they would adapt to rising acidity levels.

To examine the crustaceans, the team collects different crustacean species from a number of areas near Palmer station. Once in the lab, they place the creatures in tanks that have different acidity levels on the pH scale. The team hopes to understand more clearly which species collected are best able to adapt to the changing levels and which are most vulnerable. When the water becomes more acidic, it negatively affects the amphipods’ ability to pull dissolved calcium out of the water. They use the dissolved calcium to form their exoskeletons which acts as a hard, protective shell for the crustaceans. Therefore, more acidic waters mean it’s difficult for the amphipods to create their shells. In addition, when they are under stress, as when they molt their outgrown shells, amphipods are dying in more acidic waters. Amsler and McClintock’s team is still working to uncover why this could be happening.

For our final May entry, we will take a closer look at what happens to the Antarctic landscape as greenhouse gases warm the continent, including a somewhat unexpected result: Antarctica is turning greener.


Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “Facing The Ultimate Acid Test.” The Antarctic Sun Science News, 2020, https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/4423/


Photo Credits:

Hannah Oswalt Checking Temperature – Mike Lucibella

Macroalgae – Bill Baker

Amphipod – Maggie Amsler

Temperature Tanks – Mike Lucibella

Warming Waters in Antarctica Could Affect Invertebrates - May 21, 2020

The continent of Antarctica is one of the coldest places on Earth, but in the ancient past it has been warm, and thanks to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, it is changing again.

Greenhouse gases are gases that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating a blanket of warmth across the globe. The four main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. These gases can be emitted through several processes including the burning of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, the decaying of organic wastes, and through various industrial and agricultural processes. When light and heat enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they warm the planet, but these gases act like a greenhouse, trapping this heat inside the atmosphere, and heat the Earth further. A blanket of warmth may sound like a nice comfort for Earth, but in reality, the heat speeds up dangerous processes like climate change.


Climate change can be observed in different ways, including through the rise of ocean temperatures. Oceans absorb most of the excess heat from greenhouse gas emissions This affects many marine species and ecosystems. The warmth can cause the bleaching of corals and the loss of breeding grounds for fish and marine mammals. The Southern Ocean around Antarctica will not be immune to any negative warming effects. Scientists at McMurdo station are investigating how ocean temperature changes could affect the invertebrates who live there.

For millions of years, the Southern Ocean has maintained a consistent temperature year-round, with less than a one-degree Celsius change from summer to winter months. This stability is very important to the creatures who live in the Southern Ocean because they have evolved to rely on this consistency. For species elsewhere on Earth, a few degrees change in the water temperature may not be too troubling because their environment goes through a wider range of water temperature changes throughout the year. However, for Antarctic species, a few degrees could be the difference between normal and abnormal development, because they have not had time to adapt to the change.


Principle investigator, Amy Moran, and her team at McMurdo station are studying invertebrates because of the wide diversity available in the Southern Ocean. Invertebrates do not have backbones and make up most of the animals in the Southern Ocean excluding seals, penguins, and fish. These scientists are examining embryos and newly-hatched invertebrates because they are curious about the developmental changes that could occur in different water temperatures. Warmer temperatures can speed up the development of the creature’s metabolisms in their eggs which causes them to mature faster than normal. A faster maturity rate means that the invertebrate consumes the yolk reserves in their egg too fast, which can stunt development. Therefore, the newly-hatched invertebrate could emerge smaller than expected and face new challenges including a higher susceptibility to predators and a higher risk of starvation.

To more closely examine these future developmental issues, Moran and her team are gathering multiple samples of invertebrates throughout the seasons and bringing them back to their lab. There, they place the samples into different temperature-controlled environments to observe any changes as they grow. They can measure the embryo sizes and how long it takes each embryo to reach each stage of development, providing much information on whether the embryo is developing any abnormalities. One way these scientists can detect an abnormality is by looking at the embryo’s shape. Healthy embryos are symmetrical and have cells that match and are the same size. Abnormal embryos are asymmetrical and irregular.

Oceans not only absorb the heat from greenhouse gases but also the gases themselves, including large amounts of carbon dioxide. This absorption can cause the waters to become more acidic, which also has a negative effect on the creatures who live in them. Next week, we will continue exploring climate change, by discussing research that is being conducted on the rising ocean acidity levels and how that effects crustaceans.

Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “Larvae La Vida Loca.” Th Antarctic Sun Science News, 2020, https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/4413/

Photo Credits:

Greenhouse Gas Emission Chart – EPA.gov

Sea Spider – Mike Lucibella

Research Team – Mike Lucibella

Sea Spider Embryos – Mike Lucibella

The Amazing Weddell Seals - May 19, 2020

As mentioned in our Thursday entry, Weddell seals have some amazing adaptions that help them thrive in Antarctica. These adaptions influence Weddell behavior including how they dive, what they eat, how they raise their pups, and how they interact with one another. Now, let’s take a closer look at these behaviors and see what we can discover!

Diving Deeper

Weddells are excellent swimmers. Their fusiform body shape helps them glide underwater while their hind flippers open and close to create thrust-based locomotion, which speeds them forward. Weddells can dive up to 2,000 feet and can swim more than 6.5 feet a second. To put this into perspective, the deepest dive undertaken by a human without scuba gear was 702 feet, completed by Herbert Nitsch. Also, humans only swim on average at 1.8 feet a second. We are definitely no match for these pinnipeds.

To be able to dive 2,000 feet, Weddells can hold their breath for over an hour. When seals need to take another breath, they surface at breathing holes like the one seen here. Large amounts of oxygen help provide energy for the Weddells to swim. To extend their diving time, Weddells collapse their lungs so they do not need as much air. The oxygen that would be in their lungs is moved throughout their bodies to increase their energy. The two proteins that carry the oxygen through their bodies are called hemoglobin and myoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to the seals’ organs and tissues while myoglobin carries oxygen to the seals’ muscles. Without these two important proteins, Weddells could not dive for extended periods of time.

What’s on the menu?

Diving is not merely a way for Weddell seals to pass the time. Seals dive to search for food. Weddells are carnivores which means they only eat meat. Scientists know they are carnivores through careful observation of their eating habits and teeth. Weddells have canines, post canines, and incisors that all serve a different purpose. Canines are long, sharp, pointed teeth that are used to quickly grab their prey and firmly hold it. Post canines help the Weddells get their food down. Typically, Weddells swallow their food whole so they do not use them for grinding their prey. The incisors, called “ice reavers,” have a special purpose. Seals use them to “ream” or break through the ice to keep their breathing holes open.

The most common fish eaten by Weddell seals are Antarctic Silverfish. A Weddell can swallow over 100 of these fish whole in a single dive. Other staples of a Weddell’s diet include Borch, Antarctic Cod, squid, shrimp, and krill. Borch are a small fish that Weddells quickly devour. To catch the Borch, Weddells blow air bubbles into the breathing holes to scare them out of their hiding places.

Pregnancy and Pups 

Every October and November, pregnant Weddells haul out on the ice to give birth to their pups. Weddells usually have one pup a year but some Weddells do skip the breeding cycle. Scientists refer to these Weddells as “skip breeders”. Because the pupping cycle is so consistent, all Weddells have birthdays in October and November. These spring months are warmer and more suited for pup rearing.

Pups are born with a downy layer of light gray fur called lanugo, which helps keep them warm in the Antarctic spring. However, as the pups grow and the summer approaches, they molt their lanugo and trade it for dense, silver-gray fur. The summer months of January and February are the height of Weddell molting and new coats shine in the warm sun.

Talk the Talk

Weddells are the most vocal of all the seal species. In fact, some Weddells make 20 calls per minute! Males are more vocal than the females and they use their calls to attract females, compete with other males, and defend their breathing holes. Scientists are fascinated by these calls and have even learned to identify 34 different Weddell sounds. Some of the sound names include chi-chi-chi, too-loo, mew, guttural glug, and what-chunk. This data helps scientists learn more about the temperament of the seals and the dynamic between them.

Now that we have learned so much about life in Antarctica through learning how scientists live and work at McMurdo station, and examining the Weddell seals who call the continent their home, we will now shift our focus to look at the impact climate change makes to this ecosystem. Our next entry will focus on the warming of oceans around the world and how temperature changes in the Antarctic could affect even the tiniest creatures who live there, and how changes in the Antarctic could affect the whole world.


Seal Bodies - Adapting to a Harsh, Frigid Climate - May 14, 2020

Scientists have been researching Weddell seals, the southernmost mammal on Earth, for over 50 years, which has generated much information about how Weddells adapt to their frigid climate. The following are some of the ways in which their bodies are prepared for cold temperatures, dry lands, and deep, dark waters.  

Fur & Blubber

Weddells have short, dense silver-gray fur that helps keep them warm throughout the year. However, after an entire year of use, their fur becomes dry and brown. To encourage new fur growth, Weddells sunbathe in the spring and summer months, which are October-February in the Antarctic. Sunbathing helps the seals molt, or shed, their fur. The sun may not feel warm to the scientists studying the seals, but for Weddells, the sunshine is perfect.

Blubber is another adaption that helps keep Weddells warm. Blubber is a layer of fat, sometimes inches thick, that Weddells store as an insulator for their bodies. An adult Weddell’s body usually consists of about 30-40% fat which keeps them nice and toasty.

However, Weddell pups do not have these same adaptions. When Weddells are first born on Antarctic ice shelves, they have light gray coats with many fluffy, heat-trapping, downy hairs called lanugo. While these coats definitely help keep the pups warm, this is the only known method Weddell pups have for surviving the harsh temperatures. Scientists at McMurdo station are curious about what other adaptions these small creatures have. They do not have thick layers of blubber like adult Weddells or a special fat called brown fat that some other species of seal possess. Not only that, scientists want to know what makes a pup ready to dive into the frigid water. To better understand this, scientists are examining the pups’ metabolisms on the ice and in the water. Mammal’s bodies use energy to stay warm.  When the seals are able to stay in the water without using too much energy, then scientists know they are ready to take extended plunges because the water is not too cold for them.

Body Shape & Flippers

Weddell seals have a sleek, fusiform body shape. This means they are round and compressed at the main part of their bodies but tapered at both their heads and tails. Having a fusiform body shape makes Weddells excellent swimmers. They may seem like big hulks on the ice, but in the water, Weddells are very agile.

Their unique flippers also help propel them through the icy waters. Weddell seals have two types of flippers: fore flippers and hind flippers. Fore flippers are located near the mid-section of the seal while the hind flippers are located near the tip of the tail. Both sets of flippers are webbed which help these mighty seals move across the ice and accelerate through the water. When they swim, seals spread one hind flipper open and keep one hind flipper closed which speeds them forward through a process called thrust-based locomotion.


When studying Weddell eyes, there were a few differences discovered between Weddell eyes and ours. The first is that Weddell eyes are almost twice as big as human eyes. Weddells also have very large, brown irises. The size of the eye and iris both allow Weddells to collect the most light possible which is needed when they dive in the deep, dark ocean. Another difference is the number of cones their eyes possess in their eyes. Cones are the photoreceptor cells on the retinas which “see” color. Humans have three sets of cones while seals only have two sets. This means that Weddells may actually have trouble seeing different colors and may be color-blind.


A Weddell’s nostril flare is about as large as a quarter. This may not seem large, but compared to a human’s, it is huge. When on land, Weddell seals use these large nostrils to sniff out the location of their mates and pups. Weddells also use their nostrils to maintain their body temperature and hydration levels. During mating and pupping season, Weddells fast, which makes this adaption extremely important to their survival.



Weddell seals have three types of whiskers: superciliary, rhinal, and mystacial whiskers. Superciliary whiskers are over the seal’s eyes, rhinal whiskers are near the seal’s nose, and mystacial whiskers are on the seal’s snout. As they grow, the whiskers incorporate molecules and isotopes from the creatures that they eat into the whiskers. Researchers collect Weddell whiskers to track their diets over a long period of time. Weddells use their whiskers to detect the slightest movements in the water which helps them find food and swim safely.

Next week, we will explore Weddell behavior including how Weddells dive deep into the Antarctic waters, what and how Weddells eat, pregnancy and pup rearing, and how a Weddell “speaks”.

Meet the Seals - May 12, 2020

In the early 19th century, British explorer, Captain James Weddell, voyaged into the Antarctic. On his third journey, Weddell broke the record for the southernmost exploration, a title previously held by Captain James Cook. This important explorer went on to become the namesake of the sea that he travelled through and the unique seals that scientists now research at McMurdo station: the Weddell seals.

Weddells are part of the Animalia kingdom, the Chordata phylum, and the Mammalia class. This means that they are animals with backbones who are warm-blooded, have live births, nurse their young, breathe air, and have hair. They are mammals like us! In fact, Weddell seals are the southernmost mammal in the world.

Within the Mammalia class, Weddells also belong to the pinniped family. Pinnipeds are a group of marine mammals who live both on land and at sea. Some of their family members include walruses, other seals, and sea lions. All pinnipeds are mammals, carnivores, and have webbed flippers which help them swim and move on land. Actually, the word pinniped means “fin-footed” or “feather-footed,” referring to these unique appendages. When seals move out of the water onto land, it is referred to as “hauling out” onto the ice.  In the warmer (but still cold) Antarctic summer, they haul out to breed on ice shelves, and it is during this time that scientists are most able to study the Weddells.

Scientists have been studying Weddell seals at McMurdo station for over 50 years. The main reason for this is because it is so easy study them. Pregnant Weddells consistently haul out on the ice in the same place every year to give birth. The specific area that they choose is near McMurdo station, so scientists have a front row seat to observe the mothers and their pups. The ice where these mothers haul out is called “fast ice” which is a frozen layer of the ocean that is several feet thick. This allows researchers to drive vehicles across the ice to get an even closer look at the early development of Weddells. Not many species can be observed this completely, so it really is important for scientists to take advantage of this opportunity.

Weddells are not only easily accessible for researchers to study, they are also very friendly and easy to work with. Weddells do not have any natural predators at their breeding site so they do not feel concerned when the scientists approach them. This greatly improves the amount and kind of research that scientists can undertake.

When working with the friendly Weddells, scientists measure their length and weight. When measuring the length of a Weddell, scientists take two measurements called the standard length and the curve length of the seal. The standard length is calculated by holding the tape measurer in a straight line directly above the seal, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. The one thing to keep in mind is that the tip of the tail is not actually the very end of the seal. A Weddell’s hind flippers extend out from the tip of the tail, which means the full length of the seal is actually greater than the measured length.  

The curve length is calculated by measuring the curvature of the seal’s body, from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. To do this, scientists measure individual sections of the seal, say from the tip of the nose to the ears and then the neck, and so on to gather the complete curve length. Because the curve length is measured directly onto the seal rather than above like the standard length, the curve length is always longer than the standard length. Seals usually measure somewhere between 8 and 11.5 feet long.

Measuring the length of a seal is easy enough because the Weddells are so friendly, but regardless of how friendly, measuring the weight of a seal can be challenging. Many Weddells weigh over 1,000 pounds! Because scientists cannot simply ask the seals to hop onto a scale, weighing Weddells is very tricky. However, to battle this obstacle, scientists use a sling to lift the seal onto the scale.

In some ways, humans could not be any more different from Weddells. The average height and weight of a human is around 5.2-5.6 feet tall and 137 pounds. Our population sizes are also dramatically different. There are around 7.5 billion people in the world and only around 800,000 Weddell seals. The life span of a seal is also unlike ours. Humans on average live to be around 71 years old while Weddells live to be between 22 and 30 years old.  Despite these differences, Weddells are very much like us. We both have strong group ties and have adaptions that help us thrive. Studying Weddell seals teaches us more about surviving harsh ecosystems like the Antarctic.  

Our next entry will delve more into the unique features a seal possesses which have allowed them to adapt to Antarctica’s frigid, windy, and dry continent including their fur, blubber, fins, and sensational senses.






Living at the End of the Earth - May 7, 2020

The Antarctic is one of the harshest regions on our planet, and while there are many animals born with what it takes to survive there, humans are not naturally suited to this climate. However, scientists often travel to the Antarctic, and to survive there they use equipment and behavior that mimics some of the natural adaptations of Antarctic animals. Before we can learn about some of the scientific projects that are underway, we must prepare for life at the ends of the Earth.

In 1841, Sir James Clark Ross was on an Antarctic expedition. The British naval captain had served on several voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic, and in 1841 he discovered an island. This island, named Ross Island after the captain, is the southernmost island reachable by sea.  

Ross Island is home to the largest settlement in the Antarctic, McMurdo Station. McMurdo Station was originally built as an air base by the US Navy’s SeaBees but is now a purely scientific operation in accordance with the Antarctic Treaty. Just miles from where Robert Falcon Scott began his journey across the continent, McMurdo Station is the primary first stop for anyone headed to the South Pole and is home to around 1,250 people in the summer.  Pink Palace educator Alex Eilers was one of these visitors during three different Antarctic summers. 

In order to keep these residents warm, McMurdo Station requires a huge amount of power. For about a decade in the 1960s, the station relied on a small nuclear reactor to supply its heat and electricity!  In 1972, the reactor was dismantled, and the station turned to diesel generators to keep the power coming.  In 2009, three wind turbines were added, which cover around 11% of the station’s power.

Survival in the Antarctic requires more than just a good heating system, though.  Animals are protected from the cold thanks to some incredible adaptations. Seals and orcas, for instance, have a thick layer of blubber all around their bodies which can be several inches thick. To mimic adaptations like this, humans really have to bundle up. When bundling for cold weather, it’s not enough just to wear a lot of clothes, you have to get the order of layers right. If you sweat too much you can become dehydrated, or even make yourself colder!

To avoid this, it’s important that you start with a layer of lightweight, breathable material, like long underwear, as your innermost later. This helps wick moisture away from your skin so it doesn’t get trapped there. For your next layer, use an insulating material like wool to keep you warm. This is the layer that will trap the most heat. Finally, on the outermost layer, Antarctic scientists must shield as much of their body as they can from the wind and snow. Goggles, gloves, thick boots, and a waterproof jacket help make this shield complete. In Antarctica, almost every scientist wears one of the bright, puffy coats you see in this picture, referred to as a “Big Red.” Produced by Canada Goose, these distinctive coats are some of the best cold weather equipment and are one of the unofficial symbols of Antarctic science programs today. 

Moving around these heavy layers and working all day long in the hostile conditions of the frozen continent takes a lot of energy. On top of the exertion from work and wearing so much weight, the body also burns calories staying warm. This means that if you’re in Antarctica, you have to eat much more food to keep your energy up. While most of our daily diets are recommended to be around 2,000 calories, in Antarctica this doubles to around 4,000. A full-size chocolate bar has a little over 200 calories, which means you could eat an additional ten chocolate bars each day! 

While this is great news for foodies living at McMurdo station, the cooks in the station face a unique obstacle. Antarctica is too cold and dry to grow crops or keep livestock, and the Antarctic Treaty forbids hunting or fishing, so no seals or fish can be caught for McMurdo’s mess hall. Once a year, a ship arrives with the station’s food. This ship arrives in the early year, during the Antarctic summer when seas are still navigable, and delivers huge quantities of frozen and dried food. The 2016 shipment contained 800 crates of food, totaling close to one million pounds!

It takes a lot of packaging to move and store this food, but the Antarctic Treaty forbids waste disposal on the continent. That means the same lucky ship that brought the food picks up any trash or waste that isn’t recycled at the station and takes it back to the United States. Before loading this ship, waste is screened and processed into small biosolid cakes by machines like the big green “Muffin Monster” in the picture.  

While the supply of food brought by this ship will keep the station stocked all year, there are sometimes deliveries of fresh food, too. During the summer, there are weekly flights from Christchurch, New Zealand, bringing equipment, people, and food.  These flights are frequently delayed by harsh weather, but when they land and have space for fresh food, it’s a much-anticipated treat.

McMurdo station, like most of the continent, lies largely dormant for half of the year. Once the dead of Antarctic winter sets in, the landscape is plunged into perpetual darkness. Winds pick up and temperatures drop. In August, the coldest month of the year for McMurdo, temperatures have an average low of –25 degrees Fahrenheit. With these extremes, few people stay the winter, and from February to August, McMurdo’s population drops to around 150 people. This skeleton crew overwinters, keeping the station safe through the coldest months of endless night. When light returns, it brings 24-hour sunlight instead.

In this eternal summer, seals heave themselves onto ice shelves to breed, young penguins plunge into the warmer seas to feed, and scores of research teams make their way to McMurdo station. The station springs to life as the home base for some of the most groundbreaking science being done today.

In our next entries, we’ll dig into some of the research being done in Antarctic, including a project studying Weddell Seals that Alex Eilers from the Pink Palace has traveled all the way to Antarctica to work on!

A Closer Look at the End of the Earth - May 5, 2020

Over a hundred years ago, Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott led the first two expeditions to reach the South Pole.  With dog sleds, fur coats, and compasses, it was a grueling journey that claimed many lives, including that of Scott himself, who succumbed to the devastating cold of Antarctica on his return journey from the pole.

Today, exploration and science in the Antarctic looks very different.  Join us this month to take a closer look at the harsh continent, the life that flourishes there, and the techniques scientists use to conduct experiments to learn more about it.

A Superlative Continent

Antarctica is the southernmost continent on our planet, and that’s far from the only title it holds.  It’s also the coldest, windiest, highest, driest, and iciest continent. 

At the South Pole, it rarely climbs above –14 degrees Fahrenheit, even in the middle of summer when the sun never sets, and it can dip down to –71 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter! This frigid air is whipped around by knifelike winds, which pull snow off the polar plateau and barrel towards the coast at up to 185 miles per hour, causing massive snowdrifts and blizzards like the one that killed Robert Scott. Despite all this snow blowing around, very little falls as precipitation. The entire continent only receives an average of 6.5 inches of water falling from clouds each year. Compare this to Memphis, which receives over 54! This classifies Antarctica as a desert, even though it is covered in a nearly solid layer of ice and snow. This icy layer sits on a rocky landmass, unlike the ice at the North Pole, which covers the Arctic Sea. This landmass is about the size of the United States and Mexico combined, and the ice spreads into thick sheets over the ocean as well, shrinking in the summer, and growing exponentially in the frigid cold of winter. This layer of ice can be miles thick stacked on the surface of Antarctica, which is already rippled through with jagged mountain ranges and high plateaus, making Antarctica’s altitude an average of 8,200 feet above sea level. The entire continent is thousands of feet higher than the Appalachian Mountains.

With a landscape that sounds and feels like something from an alien planet, it’s a wonder that any life can survive at all!  The life that does is full of adaptations that are wonderful and strange and very different from life in our region. Most of this life depends on the Antarctic Sea, which remains a balmy 28-50 degrees year round. This sea is teeming with all kinds of life, from krill to orca whales, to the animals like penguins that live some of their life on the icy sheets above water, but depend on the sea for food.

The Antarctic Treaty

One animal that is particularly ill suited to life in Antarctica is the homo sapien.  This hairless ape has neither the blubber of seals nor the insulating feathers of penguins. Humans cannot hold their breath long enough to dive for food, and farming on the continent is impossible. Human eyes are not able to adjust to the harsh light of the 24 hour summer sun reflected off the snow or the 24 hour darkness of winter. Thus, despite the hopes of imperial powers at the time of early Antarctic exploration, it is not suitable for the expansion of national territory. 

This led twelve nations to draft the Antarctic Treaty sixty years ago.  Many treaties and government documents stretch on until they’re the size of a small book, but the Antarctic Treaty is a mere 12 pages. In this surprisingly short amount of text, the treaty establishes a mode of governance for a landmass that makes up around 9% of the Earth’s surface! It also shows an amazing amount of global cooperation towards an aim of peaceful scientific understanding, including comprehensive environmental protections and bans on territorial claims, military activity, and nuclear weapons and waste. This was effectively the first nuclear arms ban in history and has helped preserve the continent for scientific research.

Its preamble states “It is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord [and] acknowledging the substantial contributions to scientific knowledge resulting from international cooperation in scientific investigation in Antarctica.” This noble aim was first agreed upon by the twelve nations that had either laid claim to or are closest to the continent: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the United Kingdom, United States, and USSR (now Russia).  By 2020, more nations have signed on to the treaty, bringing its count to 54. The treaty has since been expanded, to include even stricter environmental regulations and bans on mining of mineral resources for reasons other than scientific research.  This treaty has inspired more recent agreements outside of Antarctica, such as the Outer Space Treaty that was signed just eight years later.

In the sixty years since the treaty was signed, Antarctica has been the temporary home to many scientists, who have pushed the boundaries of their fields to discover more about both the continent and our world.  Sometimes these scientists look back into time, researching the ancient warm jungles that existed when Antarctica was home to dinosaurs like the “Elvisaurus” (named for its distinctive head crest), and at other times they look to the future, studying how the melting of these massive ice sheets might have dire consequences for life all around the globe as the planet warms.

In the words of Jill Mikuci, a microbial ecologist at the University of Tennessee, “There's just something about the rigor and the way science is done down there. I love the collaboration and I love the energy of making impossible projects work. It's just a really exciting, powerful thing to be a part of...The research that they're doing is really important, it's really interesting, and it's critical. These are fundamental questions about how our planet works.” (Lucibella)

Through the month of May, we’re diving into some of the work being done in Antarctica today to take a closer look at both the life that lives there and how conditions in Antarctica can help us learn about life worldwide.


Lucibella, Michael, and Antarctic Sun Editor. “50 Years of Women in Antarctica.” The Antarctic Sun Science News, 2019, antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/4407/.

Photo Credits

Volcanic Ice Tower -  Alex Eilers

Mount Erebus, Earth’s Southernmost Volcano - Alex Eilers

The Flag of the Antarctic Treaty -  Alakasam

Snowmobiles are the best way to get around Antarctica -  Alex Eilers

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 30, 2020

Discovering the Cause

Discovering causes to epidemics and pandemics has always been important to the scientific and health communities. In the case of Yellow Fever, there were many speculations as to what caused the disease and how it spread. It was not until 1900 that the truth was revealed. Let’s talk history.

The Conquest of Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever had been prevalent in Cuba and other tropical islands long before it came to the United States. Many men and women helped in discovering the cause of Yellow Fever through the Yellow Fever Commission which was tasked with definitively discovering the cause of the plague. They conducted the majority of their experiments in Cuba.

Carlos Juan Finlay 1833 – 1915

Carlos Finlay was the Cuban doctor who first proposed that mosquitos were the carriers of Yellow Fever and Malaria. He presented his theory at the 1881 International Sanitary Conference in Havana and a year later identified a mosquito of the genus Aedes as the organism responsible for transmitting Yellow Fever. He recommended reducing the mosquito population to control the spread of the disease. His hypothesis and proofs were confirmed 20 years later by the Yellow Fever Commission of 1900. Although Dr. Walter Reed received much of the credit in history books for “beating” Yellow Fever, Reed himself credited Dr. Finlay with the discovery of the Yellow Fever transmitter, and how it might be controlled.

Major Walter Reed 1851 – 1902

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, more American soldiers died of Yellow Fever, Malaria, and other diseases than from combat. After the war, these illnesses continued to sicken both the Cuban population and American occupation forces. The US Army Surgeon General appointed Major Walter Reed, M.D. to head a Yellow Fever Commission to investigate the cause of the disease and identify ways to prevent it. In a series of experiments beginning in 1900, the commission proved that Yellow Fever was not caused by poor sanitation but by the female Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes which carried the virus from person to person through their bites.

To confirm their conclusions, the commission disproved theories that yellow fever was caused by a bacterium or was transmitted by direct contact with soiled clothing worn by infected patients. In a letter Reed wrote to his wife, he describes the building designed to test the mosquito theory. Reed and his team also demonstrated that mosquitoes only picked up the Yellow Fever virus if they fed on a person during the first three days of the infection and could then pass it on to another human after a period of incubation.

Dr. Jesse William Lazear

Dr. Lazear conducted research about Malaria and Yellow Fever at Baltimore’s John Hopkins Hospital before joining the Yellow Fever Commission as a specialist in infectious diseases. The team investigated how the disease was transmitted by examining three possible routes—transmission of bacteria through the air, direct contact with infected clothing or bedding, or by bites of infected mosquitoes. Lazear allowed himself to be bitten by an infected mosquito, became very ill and died from the disease.

Lena Angevine Warner 1869 – 1948

Lena Angevine Warner recovered from Yellow Fever as a child, trained in Memphis to become a nurse and assisted Dr. Walter Reed with his experiments. Lena was born in Grenada, MS and as an 8-year-old, was the only member of her immediate family to survive the 1877 epidemic there. In 1889, she was part of the first class to graduate from the Memphis Training School for Nurses. She studied further in Chicago and in 1898 became the first superintendent of nurses at the new City of Memphis Hospital. She led a team of Memphis nurses to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, became the chief executive nurse of the island and the first woman with an officer’s rank in the US Army. She returned in 1900 to join the Yellow Fever Commission as the nurse in charge of the experiments. Afterwards, she returned to Memphis to serve a long career in public health and community service.

Clara Maass 1876 – 1901

Clara Maass was an American nurse who cared for sick and wounded soldiers on the battlefields of Manila and Cuba. While in Havana, she volunteered for the Yellow Fever Commission experiments. She was bitten by a mosquito infected with the virus and came down with a very light case of the disease. It was such a mild case that the doctors did not believe she would be immune. Six months later, she volunteered to be bitten a second time, became seriously ill and died.

Major General William Gorgas, M.D. 1854 – 1920

As a young Army physician in Texas, William Gorgas suffered a serious bout of Yellow Fever, and thereafter was called upon to fight outbreaks of this and other infectious diseases throughout his career. After the occupation of Cuba in 1898, Gorgas became chief sanitary officer of Havana, where Yellow Fever had existed for three centuries. When the Yellow Fever Commission proved that mosquitoes were the carriers of the fever, Gorgas fought to eradicate mosquitos from Havana. He ordered fever patients to be quarantined, had every building in the city fumigated and drained collections of water where mosquitoes might breed. By 1902, there were no further reported cases. He went on to direct a campaign against Yellow Fever and Malaria in Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal.

While Memphis and Havana would see fewer and fewer cases of Yellow Fever, it wasn’t until 1951 that Max Theiler created a vaccine, winning the Nobel Prize.  Yet there is still no cure, and Yellow Fever can be found in many warm, humid areas throughout the world.  We hope you have enjoyed this closer look into the Yellow Fever Epidemics. Let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let's Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 28, 2020

Reforms & After Effects

The Start of Something New

Once the dust settled after the 1878 epidemic, a sense of urgency for much needed reforms spread over the city.  Memphis newspapers called on city officials for change on a daily basis. While the cause for yellow fever would not be discovered until 1900, the city leaders understood that part of the problem and what aided the spread of Yellow Fever in 1878 was poor sanitary conditions.

One of the major aftereffects to come out of the 1878 epidemic was the understanding that strong local, state, and national boards of health were needed. The National Board of Health was established during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. Its purpose was to stop the introduction of contagious and infectious diseases into the US. Its work continues today within the CDC and FEMA. The National Board of Health would order a sanitary survey of the city of Memphis. Dr. Robert W. Mitchell was a member of the special committee that was authorized to make house-to-house inspections. The report would list a few recommendations that would need to be carried out by the local Board of Health.

A New Form of Government

On January 31, 1879, Tennessee Governor Albert S. Marks signed an act abolishing the charter of the city of Memphis because the population had dropped to less than thirty-five thousand. He then signed a second act establishing the Taxing District of Shelby County, a commission form of municipal government, with D.T. Porter as its president. Under the same act that established the new government of the Taxing District, the Tennessee legislature organized a permanent Board of Health in Memphis with the authority to initiate health reforms and enforce health ordinances.


The city of Memphis is the first community in the US to have a separate collection system for sanitary sewage and surface drainage. After the epidemics in the 1870s, Memphis recognized the need to separate their sanitary sewage from their water resources. The National Health Board hired Col. George W. Waring, Jr. as the civil engineer tasked with designing a system that would provide separate drains for sewage and surface water runoff. By 1900 Memphis had 152 miles of working sewer lines.

Memphis also worked on creating a safe source of drinking water.  In 1883, Bolen-House Machine and Lake Ice Company began experimental drilling in the Memphis area for ice production. In May 1887, the company’s well on Court Street “suddenly gushed forth clear, cool, good-tasting water.” After a study confirmed the underground source held an ample supply of water to sustain Memphis’ needs, the city contracted with the newly formed Artesian Water Company to provide its municipal water supply. By 1890, thirty-two Artesian aquifer wells supplied the city with clean, pure drinking water—one of the purest sources anywhere in the US. An aquifer is a natural geographic layer of porous and permeable material through which water flows and is stored. An artesian aquifer is a confined aquifer surrounded by layers of impermeable rock or clay

In 1868, eleven miles of city streets constructed of Nicholson pavement, wooden blocks coated with creosote, rotted in less than a decade and were unsafe for travel after less than a decade of use. By order of the new Board of Health, the Nicholson pavement was taken up. 

By 1886, 22.5 miles of streets were laid using rubble stone, gravel, and granite. By the early 1890s, the city had paved 50 miles of streets in commercial and affluent residential areas. While these efforts to overhaul the terrible sanitary situation helped the overall health of the city, it did not stop Yellow Fever from hitting the city again. It did help to lessen the breeding grounds of the mosquitos, however, so the city would never see epidemics as deadly as the 1870s again.You are invited

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let's Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 23, 2020

Assessing the Toll

Due to poor sanitation, limited health knowledge, and the nature of Yellow Fever in general, a lot of people passed away during the 1878 epidemic. Today, we are lucky enough to have better amenities, better health standards, and a better understanding of the world around us. But for now, let’s talk history.

The Daily Appeal ran a column listing the previous day’s deaths. Readers at home could compare the listings to that of the 1873 epidemic. It was listed under the title “Comparative Mortuary Table.” It was clear to anyone keeping track that the 1878 Fever was by far the worst epidemic to ever hit Memphis. The Howard Association commented in their notes, “…the Association, on the 14th of August, 1878, was once more summoned to work, this time to face an ordeal, compared with which all previous epidemics were but a brief agony. Between that day and the fourth of November - nearly three months - they were to see 70 per cent of a population of about 19,000 sicken of the fever, and of that number 5,150 die.” This time Yellow Fever spread faster than it had ever before. By the end of the first week, 1,500 people were sick and the mortality averaged 10 a day. By the end of the second week, 3,000 people were sick and the mortality rate jumped to 50 a day. Those numbers only increased as the weeks went on.

There are stories from this time period where in as little as a week, entire families were wiped out, leaving not even one person alive to carry on the family name or legacy. The police department was severely affected as well. Out of a force of 48 officers, 43 had fallen sick, and 10 of them passed away.

Bodies started piling up in the streets and alleys. When the cemeteries could no longer keep up with the amount of fallen Memphians, the bodies were sent to the train station to be transported to St. Louis, home of the nearest incinerator.


Elmwood Cemetery

During the 1873 and the 1878 epidemics, people were dying at an alarming rate. While there were many cemeteries being tasked with dealing with the dead, Elmwood Cemetery is home to many of the Yellow Fever victims.


The Daily Appeal, October 2, 1878

“Sunday some heart-stricken citizens went to Elmwood Cemetery to visit the fresh-made graves and to spread flowers on the hillocks that marked those sacred spots. The graves could not be found, notwithstanding patient searches. Hundreds of coffins have been unloaded at Elmwood during the few three weeks, and owing to the scarcity of gravediggers, burials fell far behind. Those who did not own family plots purchased private graves and were assured that proper burials would take place. However, the gravediggers could not keep up with the death toll and because of the health menace the coffins were interred in long trenches, notwithstanding that private graves had been bought and paid for…”

When you visit Elmwood Cemetery today, there is a large open field with a single marker that reads, “No Man’s Land.” No Man’s Land is home to four public lots where the remains of at 1,400 victims of Yellow Fever lie in mass burial graves.

People such as Annie Cook, Sister Constance, Dr. Armstrong, and many others now find Elmwood Cemetery to be their final resting place.

No Longer a City

Due to the loss of population in Memphis from those who passed away and those who never returned after the epidemic, the city lost its charter and became a taxing district of Nashville. We will talk about that more in our next post so make sure to check back soon!

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 21, 2020

Economic Effects

There is never a convenient time for something like Yellow Fever or COVID-19 to happen and when it does, it always comes at a cost. Let’s talk history…

Economic Effect Across the Epidemics

Throughout Memphis history, Yellow Fever seems to always follow a trend of occurring in times of economic hardship. The first outbreak occurred in 1855 and the city was caught completely unprepared because they believed they were too far North to ever be infected. That year, somewhere between 85 and 220 people died from the fever, giving the city of Memphis its first glimpse of what was to come.

1867 Yellow Fever Outbreak

In 1867, the fever struck again. Still reeling from the economic and social fallout of the Civil War, the city was not prepared for another attack of the mosquito-borne illness. Beginning on the Gulf coast, the fever struck Galveston, New Orleans, and slowly crawled up the river. The city’s medical board was hesitant to establish a quarantine; many doctors believed the disease was airborne and no quarantine could contain it.


The city’s physicians and business leaders expressed concern over what establishing a quarantine, and broadcasting Yellow Fever to the public, would mean for the city’s economic future. In a city that relied on the movement of goods along the river and rail lines, quarantine meant economic collapse. A great deal of money was at stake, and if Yellow Fever were proclaimed to be at epidemic levels in the city, many businessmen could be ruined. Indeed, notices of the Fever in the city’s papers frequently brought on an anxiety over what it would mean for business. The fever had struck at a critical time for the region’s cotton growers and cotton factors. With Memphis on lockdown, how could the vital commodity be sold?

The physicians of the city could not agree on what was happening. Some blamed the sudden rash of deaths on intermittent or malarial fever, while others reported the clear symptoms of “Yellow Jack” in their patients: jaundice and black vomit. The quarantine had done little. Warm temperatures, as sometimes prevail in Memphis well into the fall months, enabled mosquitoes to continue to spread the disease.

By late October, the city's papers began to report that the fever was decreasing. The editor of the Appeal attempted to calm the anxiety of planters and cotton merchants. But the death toll had only subsided slightly; deaths were down to 36 for the week from October 20-27.

On October 30th, the long-awaited shift in the weather arrived. Winds came out of the northwest, bringing cool, bracing air to the bluff. The night of the 30th was clear and chilly, and many expected that a frost would soon arrive. On October 31st a frost came, one strong enough to kill green plants still growing in the city’s kitchen gardens. The anxiety of the city’s merchants and journalists began to subside, as it seemed the epidemic would soon end. Despite the dropping temperatures, deaths from Yellow Fever continued.

The following days were cold and wet. Still more frost settled on the muddy streets of the city. Mosquitoes, unable to survive in the increasingly chilly weather, began to die off. The disease was persisting in the built-up parts of the city where mosquitoes continued to live in warmer, indoor environments. The Fever had decreased but was very much still one of the primary causes of death in the city. It was not until early December that the city experienced its last death from Yellow Fever. The epidemic of 1867 had finally come to an end.

1873 Yellow Fever Outbreak

1873 was a bad year for Memphis, and for the United States. The country was in the grip of a financial panic and cotton prices were collapsing. Before the events of the 1930s, the period from 1873 to 1877 was known as the “Great Depression.” To make matters worse, Memphis would be hit by Yellow Fever worse than ever before.

In August, Dr. Nuttall, city health officer, reported to the Board of Aldermen that Yellow Fever had appeared in New Orleans and "it behooves us, therefore, to observe the utmost vigilance and precaution." Though the disease was not yet epidemic, Nuttall remarked, "we may reasonably expect that it will assume that form." The editor of the Appeal was dubious; at the forefront of his concerns were the potential damage that could be done to commerce. Concerned that another panic would "cost not only Memphis, but New Orleans, Nashville and other cities hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars," the New Orleans Picayune was wired to make a comment on the matter. In response, the editor of the Picayune wired back, commenting that there were no deaths from Yellow Fever reported for the week ending August 5th.

The editor of the Appeal, seeking to reassure his readers, responded: "There is no yellow fever in New Orleans, the official statement to our health-officer to the contrary notwithstanding. He has been misinformed, or else the health-officer of New Orleans writes one thing to him and prints another in the papers of that city. Let us not raise the cry of "wolf, wolf," when the ravenous creature is nowhere near. The yellow fever has visited Memphis just twice in her history, and may never visit us again, very likely never will” (Aug. 7, 1873).

A week later, a report from New Orleans brought news of six Yellow Fever deaths. News of cases appearing in Galveston also reached the Bluff City. By September 13th, reports of an outbreak in Shreveport had reached the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff. The New Orleans papers denied the disease had become epidemic; rather, they were sporadic cases, no different from the usual bilious fevers that predominated in the environs of New Orleans during the warmer months. The Appeal reprinted an account from New Orleans explaining these cases away. The situation was not dire; commerce could continue to transpire unimpeded.

The disease spread very rapidly. On September 15th and 16th, Memphians began falling ill with symptoms of the disease. By September 19th, over fifty Memphians had already succumbed. It had been just over a month since the Appeal and the New Orleans papers reassured Memphians the Yellow Fever posed no immediate threat.

Ultimately, the 1873 epidemic killed 2,000 Memphians.

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 16, 2020

Evacuation & Quarantine  

“All industries have ceased. The stores are closed, the factories are not running, wharves and depots are deserted, for boats and trains neither arrive nor depart, so that means for earning their daily bread is taken away from those who are not stricken with fever.” ~Public Ledger September 20, 1878

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? While we are not under a complete shutdown and quarantine under Covid-19, we are asked to stay at home as much as possible. Thankfully, today we have things like online shopping and essential stores still being open and work from home options. Let’s talk history…


Memphis, like many cities, was facing an epidemic of epic proportions. The city had some warning in 1878 as Yellow Fever struck New Orleans first. The city tried to shut down all major entry points into the city, blocked the ports, and checked people coming in and out of the city. It was too late though; the city was already riddled with the disease. It came to a point where the city urged people who could to flee to the country or to Northern cities as they were not affected the same way.

Unfortunately, this was only feasible for the well-off in Memphis. Many of the prominent families of Memphis who lived on Adams Avenue and downtown fled the city, packing only the essentials and leaving their servants to look after things. It came to a point, however, where even evacuation was becoming a problem. The following is an excerpt from the journal of Henry Sieck who detailed his travel experiences.

August 15, 1878

“…as we were approaching the train, we could see in the distance another train approaching from Little Rock. Necks were craning and happiness was reflected on faces everywhere, while everyone shouted. They’ve come to take us to Little Rock! The train was greeted with loud hurrahs as it stopped alongside of ours….but, what bewilderment for us all, when five minutes later we were told that under NO circumstances dared ANY passengers from our train leave for Little Rock! However, all those who would care to return to Memphis could change over to the other train and ride back.”

The Citizens Relief Committee also set up camps for refugees and evacuees to help alleviate the population stress in the city. Camp Joe Williams, the largest camp, was located approximately five miles outside of town. It had access to fresh water from nearby springs. It was placed under the command of a former Union cavalry commander John F. Cameron. He was not impressed with the refugees there, saying, “very few worthy people inhabited the tents of Camp Williams.” The camp was filled with working class people, mainly laborers, some of who Cameron described as being of "industrious habits," but others were of "indifferent morality, Catholics in faith ..." Cameron ran his camp along military lines, blowing reveille at 5:00 and requiring camp residents to be in bed by 10:00. Two local militia units, the Bluff City Grays and the McClellan Guards (an African American militia company) kept order here. Camp Morris Henderson (named for the minister of Beale Street Baptist Church), established nearby, was created specifically for African American Memphians. This camp was placed under the command of officers from the McClellan Guards. Another African American militia company, the Memphis Zouaves, under the command of Raphael T. Brown, a barber by trade, set up their encampment on Court Square, where they served as guards at the CRC's commissary. The Zouaves also helped keep order in the streets. These militia units were placed under the command of Luke Wright.


When people could no longer flee the city, a state of emergency was enacted, and quarantine was enforced. People were asked to stay home, only those who had essential jobs were allowed out. The police utilized African American militia men to help keep the peace as hundreds of houses filled with family valuables were left behind and people were beginning to go stir crazy.


Many accounts tell of people’s daily life in quarantine where they would read books, write letters to loved ones, and perform other house chores to the best of their abilities. In the unfortunate cases where a household was infected, they would spend their days nursing the sick and praying for their wellbeing.

The overall idea of quarantine has not changed over history, but how people react to it and how technology has advanced us as a civilization has made it more bearable.

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 14, 2020

The Disease – Spread, Symptoms, Treatment

“Many of the scenes in the districts afflicted with the Yellow Fever scourge are of a sad and heart-tending character. Strong men and women and little children are sick and dying... in the same house, often in the same room, presenting a pitiful sight well calculated to affect the heart of the most callous. Many of the poor people who are stricken are suffering for supplies and necessary attention. These dreadful sights are not soon to be erased from memory.” ~ The Memphis Daily Appeal August 21, 1878

It is said that history repeats itself. Today, we are lucky to know how to slow down the spread of Covid-19 and take care of ourselves. Let us be better than those who came before us so that we might not repeat their mistakes. Please wash your hands, stay inside, and let’s talk history…



Originally, people thought the fever spread through contact with others, or “miasmas” in the air that were released from the deceased who suffered the illness. It was not until 1900, when a doctor by the name of Walter Reed confirmed the theory that the disease was actually transmitted by a very specific type of mosquito, the Aedes aegypti.

The origin of Yellow Fever is most likely Africa. From there, it spread to the West Indies due to colonization and slave trade. The first recorded outbreak was in 1647 on the island of Barbados. Another outbreak was recorded the next year by Spanish colonists in the Yucatan Peninsula, where the indigenous Mayan people called the illness xekik (“blood vomit”). From there, it spread into Central and South America, until it finally came to America.


Yellow Fever is a viral disease. In most cases, symptoms include fever, chills, loss of appetite, nausea, muscle pains and headaches. The symptoms usually improve within a five-day period; however, there is a chance that within a day of improving, the fever returns. If this happens, severe abdominal pain, jaundicing of skin, and black vomit appear as the next set of symptoms. In the 1870s, once this “second fever” occurred, it was very unlikely the person would survive.



Physicians went to the homes of Yellow Fever patients to treat them. They traveled by horse or buggy and carried their equipment in medical bags. The standard medical bag included a box of surgical tools, lancets for drawing blood, and a variety of medicines and bandages. Unfortunately, many drug stores were closed at this time, so keeping stocked on medical supplies was difficult.


Treatment for Yellow Fever included induced vomiting, laxatives, leeches and other methods.

Belle’s Diary

Belle Wade was only 14 years old when Yellow Fever struck Memphis in 1878. She wrote almost daily in her diary about how the fever affected her family. Here, in her own words, is Belle’s Story…

September 6, 1878
Papa is sick. Whether he has Yellow Fever or not I don’t know. Mr. Boggs came here and is going to send the doctor out, but he hasn’t come yet. …The doctor came just at night. He said Papa had the fever unmistakably and we were all likely to have it. Oh! I do hope and pray we won’t any more of us have it.

September 7, 1878
Mama fainted last night – was sick afterwards and had to go to bed. Miss McKain and Susie sat up all night. Papa is still comfortable. The doctor said he would have a light case. There were 100 new cases and 100 deaths yesterday. The doctor came today about 12 o’clock and said Papa is getting along splendidly, but tonight he is not so well.

September 8, 1878
Papa is not so well today. He didn’t sleep a bit last night and cannot get to sleep now. Mrs. Anderson died at Hernando yesterday of Yellow Fever. Oh! How I feel for poor Katie. There were 137 new cases and 97 deaths yesterday.

September 9, 1878
Papa is better this morning and his fever is leaving him. A woman died across the street this morning. All the Dry Goods stores are shut up and all the grocery stores on Main Street but one. The doctor says Papa’s fever has left him and he is getting along nicely. It rained.

September 15, 1878
Papa is getting on very well. Today is my birthday. I am 15 years old. Mama said these are very sad times to be having birthdays, and I think so, too. Mama said I was a great comfort to her, and Papa said he hopes my next 15 years would be a great deal happier. There were 117 deaths yesterday.

September 17, 1878
Papa is very weak but he sat up in bed two or three times today and said he felt very well. There were 231 new cases and 96 deaths. The fever seems to know no abatement.

September 21, 1878
It has cleared off but is very cool. Papa walked across the floor several times by himself this morning. I think he is doing very well. There were 96 deaths yesterday. Susie and I went to get some butter this morning.

September 22, 1878
It was very cold last night, but I don’t think there was a frost. There were only 39 deaths yesterday. Miss McKain had a chill this morning and has had a fever ever since. Mama sent for the doctor this evening.

September 24, 1878
Miss McKain is real sick. The doctor came just at night. He said there weren’t but seven doctors left and he could not come any sooner.

September 30, 1878
Dear Papa went to the breakfast table this morning but says he doesn’t feel as well as he did yesterday. I wrote a postal to Willie this morning. She is in Clarksville. I think they went away the day we came out here.

October 12, 1878
I have been sick with the fever for 12 days. I had a very light case. My fever lasted only 48 hours, but I had to stay in bed. I got up the 10th day, dressed and went in the next room – staid about 10 minutes and fainted, so of course, I had to go back to bed. I sat up a good while yesterday and I wrote a letter to Willie whom I got a letter the day before. I have been up nearly all day today. I was taken (ill) Tuesday, the 1st and dear little Henry was taken the 4th. Oh! He was so sick. His fever was very high indeed and after that left him, he has the black vomit, but through the blessing of God and good nursing he is now better – though not out of danger. The dear little darling was at the point of death for several days. The doctors didn’t think he could possibly get well, but I am thankful he is better now. We had two nurses for him – a man and a woman. The latter is a splendid nurse and thinks a great deal of Henry which is a good thing. We had two doctors for him too – Dr. Alex Erskine and Dr. McFarland of Savannah, GA. Poor Lily was taken last Sunday. She has been very ill, also. There was one night they thought she would die, but she, too, is better now, though not out of danger. I feel so thankful that I had a mild case, that I can hardly express my gratitude to God for being so merciful to me.

October 14, 1878
I staid up all day again today and went outdoors. I am so thankful I am able to go out. Henry was worse last night. His pulse went down so low Mama surely thought he would die, but he is better this morning. Papa went up town today for the first time since he’s felt better.
(This is the last entry in Belle’s diary of 136 pages)

First-hand accounts like Belle’s help us get an important glimpse into what it was like to live through the Yellow Fever crisis of 1878.  In the late 1800s, these primary sources take the form of journals, letters and newspaper articles, but those media change over time.  What kind of records will you leave behind to help us understand how it feels to live through the big moments of crisis in your lifetime?

You are invited

For the last Yellow Fever post on April 30, you are invited to decide what the topic should be. Is there something or someone you want to know more about from this time period? Were you just so fascinated by a single topic you have to have more information as soon as possible?  We look forward to hearing from you.

Also, let us know what you think about this online content and ask questions via Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!


Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 9, 2020

Help from Unlikely People

Today, we are going to focus on some key figures who lent a helping hand during the yellow fever epidemics. While I wish there were some way to thank all of you on the front lines who are helping make our lives easier today– doctors, nurses, police, Kroger shelf stockers, etc. – there just is no way. So, thank you for all you are doing, you know who you are. Now, let’s talk history…

Annie Cook – 1840 to 1878

Annie Cook, whose real name is unknown, was one of the most unlikely, unexpected heroes that emerged from the yellow fever epidemics. Originally from Ohio, she worked in Kentucky for a family aiding smallpox victims. After the Civil War, Annie moved to Memphis where she operated the Mansion House, an upscale brothel on Gayoso Street. She was listed in the city directory as “madam” of a “palatial resort” for “commercial affection.” In 1872, her house was one of eighteen in the city.

When the fever hit Memphis in 1873, Annie dismissed her girls and opened her house to the sick so that she could help nurse them back to health. By the time the 1878 epidemic rolled around, Annie had gained the reputation for being an expert in the field of caring for victims of the disease. This time around, two of her “ladies” decided to follow her example and volunteer as nurses. Unfortunately, Annie Cook contracted yellow fever on September 5, 1878 and passed away a few days later. The Howard Association paid Annie Cook their respect by moving her grave to the association’s plot in Elmwood Cemetery. On September 17, the Memphis Appeal commended her in high Victorian fashion calling her a converted sinner saying, “Out of sin, the woman, in all tenderness and fullness of her womanhood, merged, transfigured and purified, to become the healer, and at last to come to the Healer of souls with Him to rest forever… the woman who, after a long life of shame, ventured all she had of life and property for the sick.”

Dr. William J. Armstrong – 1839 to 1878

Dr. William J. Armstrong was born in Maury County, Tennessee. He studied medicine at Stephenson Academy until the Civil War. He served as a sergeant under General Gideon Pillow. While Armstrong was in Memphis with the army in 1863, he met and fell in love with his wife Louisa Caledonia “Lula” Hanna. He would marry her later that year on her sixteenth birthday. When the war ended, Armstrong moved back to Maury County with his family where he worked as a county doctor until 1873. In 1873, he and his family moved back to Memphis just before the yellow fever outbreak that year. When the fever started to spread, he immediately sent his family away back to Maury County while he stayed behind to help. When the fever passed, his family returned to Memphis.

Unfortunately, when the fever returned a few years later in 1878, he sent his family off again. He wrote many letters to his family sending descriptions of the sickness, and near the end of the epidemic, how he hoped the cool nights would bring an end to the epidemic. Sadly, for Armstrong, he did not live to see the end as he contracted the fever from his patients. He died on September 20th, 1878.

Mattie Stephenson – 1855 to 1873

Mattie Stephenson was an eighteen-year-old girl who left her family and the safety of central Illinois to help the sick. While her intentions have been lost to time as to why she made the decision to “serve the sick and suffering” in this “sorely stricken city,” Stephenson was hailed as a “martyr to the cause of humanity” across the nation. When she arrived in Memphis, she immediately started volunteering as a nurse to help the sick and dying, and eventually died from the fever herself.

After her death, a monument was erected for her in Elmwood Cemetery. The Elmwood book of 1879 said of Mattie, “The name of this poor unknown girl who today sleeps in Elmwood belongs not to Memphis; not to the little village which so recently knew her; it belongs to the world, to the records of heroism to which that of the conqueror of empires seems the merest devotion to duty.” The Memphis Appeal newspaper said, “She came here a stranger, but by her heroic courage in thus giving life for the benefit of suffering humanity, she gained immortality, and her deeds will go down to posterity as equaling those of Florence Nightingale.”

Sister Constance & her Companions

Sister Constance and her companions, also known as the Martyrs of Memphis, stayed to help not only during the 1873 epidemic, but the 1878 epidemic as well. Originally, in 1873, a group of sisters of the Sisterhood of St. Mary came to Memphis to establish a school for girls near St. Mary’s cathedral. They were almost immediately confronted with a yellow fever epidemic and began to care for the sick.

When yellow fever returned to Memphis in 1878, the sisters were traveling in New York, but rushed back to Memphis while others fled the city.  The Sisters of St. Mary not only cared for the sick, but held soup kitchens for the many Memphians unable to purchase food, and even opened up an orphanage for children whose parents fell victim to the fever. Sister Constance would pass away September 9th 1878 from the fever, and three of her fellow sisters would follow soon.


While there are many others, these are just a few of the heroes of the yellow fever epidemics. If you would like to find out more about the heroes mentioned in this post or about others in general, let us know on Facebook or Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 7, 2020

First Responders – Organizations in Motion

Before we jump into today’s topic, we just wanted to take a second and say thank you to all of our First Responders out there who are helping keep everyone healthy and safe every day and especially during crises. Now, lets take a look at how different organizations responded to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878.

1878 - The First Victim

Kate Bionda and her husband owned a “snack-shop” (19th century diner) on Front Street in downtown Memphis. On an average day, their customers comprised of boatmen, draymen, and others who worked at the landing. Despite Memphis authorities having already stopped travel from the South where the fever had taken root, an infected boatman who escaped quarantine entered the Bionda’s shop in early August. By August 9th, Kate had taken ill and doctors pronounced her symptoms as consistent with yellow fever. She passed away August 13th, 1878. From there, the fever spread wildly throughout the city and would claim more than 5,000 lives.

City Health Department

City health officers took quick action. The rooms of the Bionda's restaurant, the apartments above, and the premises were fumigated and disinfected. Dr. Erskine, a city health official, blocked off access to the Bionda’s house and put men to work sprinkling carbolic acid all around the exterior and surrounding streets and sidewalks north of Jefferson. The smell was stifling. Erskine and his men sprinkled chemicals all over the streets and sidewalks north of Jefferson. This was believed to disinfect "miasmatic exhalations."

The Howard Association

Howard Associations were established in many American cities prior to the Civil War. New Orleans established a Howard Association in 1837 to provide aid during a yellow fever epidemic. Another association was formed in Norfolk, Virginia in 1855. By the 1870s, Memphis had its own Howard Association supported by funds donated by businessmen and other benefactors; it existed primarily to assist the victims of epidemics. A.D. Langstaff, a hardware store owner, helped establish Memphis' Howard Association in 1867. Langstaff led the association through the 1873 epidemic and began organizing volunteers, doctors, and nurses in the summer of 1878. Their headquarters was located at Main and Court street. Their teams of volunteers were easily identified by yellow silk armbands. These "visitors," as they were called, identified homes where people were sick with Yellow Fever, then summoned doctors and nurses to care for patients in their homes. Volunteers also delivered medicine and food to the homes of the sick as needed.

The Citizen’s Relief Committee

A group of local businessmen met on August 16th and published a notice in the city papers calling on citizens to meet at the Greenlaw Opera House the following day. Benjamin Babb, a former resident at the Mallory Neely home on Adams Avenue, was among the signatories calling for the mass meeting. The following day, a large crowd of men gathered there. The assemblage elected Cotton merchant Charles G. Fisher and Luke Wright to leadership positions. Fisher later died from the fever and Wright succeeded him as acting chairman of the Citizens’ Relief Committee.

The CRC helped citizens evacuate the city, made appeals for aid, and organized the distribution of supplies. The CRC also organized several camps for refugees a few miles outside Memphis. Luke Wright oversaw the selection of sites for refugee camps; these sites were on high ground and the brush around them was burned. Unwittingly, the CRC had situated their camps in areas that were largely free of mosquitoes. To provide refugees with shelter, the CRC wired the Secretary of War (G.W. McCrary) for tents. The War Department responded by sending 1,000. The War Department also sent food, dispatching 40,000 army rations, including beans, flour, rice, coffee, and 10 tons of bacon.

Make sure to check back later this week to find out more about individuals like Annie Cook and Sister Constance and the actions they took in helping save lives during yellow fever. Let us know what you think about out online content and ask us any questions you have by reaching out to us on Facebook and Instagram @memphismuseums!

Let’s Talk History: Yellow Fever - April 2, 2020

A Brief Introduction to the American Plague 

For many of us today, living in a time of social distancing and facing an international pandemic might be new, but the city of Memphis has seen its fair share of epidemics – So, let’s talk… The 19th century was riddled with epidemics that caused great concern for many Tennesseans. From cholera to smallpox, contagious diseases put the people of Memphis, especially the urban poor, at risk. Then came Yellow Fever, the deadliest of them all. 

Prior to the Civil War, many people assumed Memphis was too far north to be affected by the disease. They believed it was limited to the hot, low-lying areas around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. But in 1855, Yellow Fever struck Memphis for the first time. It was an indication of what could and would happen with a mild winter, a wet spring, and a long, balmy summer. 

Effected areas of Memphis

While the cause of Yellow Fever was unknown until 1900, we now know the disease spread from person-to-person by mosquitoes. It is believed sailors from the Caribbean or West Africa brought the disease to America when they docked in New Orleans. Through river trade, it spread up the Mississippi River to Memphis. Transmission of the disease lasted until the first frost wiped out the infected mosquitoes. 

The epidemics during the 1870s were by far the worst the city had ever seen and brought nothing but devastation to Memphis. In 1873, approximately 2,000 people fell victim to the fever, the largest number an inland city had ever seen. In 1878, after a mild winter, Memphis tried to get ahead of the disease when New Orleans began suffering from Yellow Fever. City officials established checkpoints at all major points of entry, but it was too late.

Yellow Fever cases were springing up. With the 1873 epidemic still in the minds of the citizens of Memphis, 25,000 people fled the city within a two-week period. From August to October, the fever ran rampant in the city, infecting over 17,000 and killing 5,150.

When the cold weather finally came, relieving Memphis of the fever, the effects were still felt. Due to the loss of population, and facing a strained economic situation, the Memphis city charter was revoked by legislation in 1879. The city became a taxing district of Nashville.

In spite of the devastation, there were a few positive impacts to come from this epidemic.

1. For the first time in its history, the city police force used African American men as patrol officers.

2. Memphis leaders started an extremely ambitious sanitation reform program, including a new sewer system and better water supply.

That is all for today’s post. Our next topic will be about the first responders and how they helped save countless lives. Let us know your thoughts or if you have any questions about Yellow Fever on our Facebook and Instagram!

Suggested Reading:

An American Plague by Jim Murphy

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever by Molly Caldwell Crosby

Fever Season by Jeanette Keith




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