Yellow fever struck Philadelphia in August 1793. At the time, the vibrant port city was home to 50,000 Americans. By November, 10 percent of them would be dead. A virus endemic to tropical regions, yellow fever traveled to Philadelphia in the bloodstreams of refugees from the Haitian Revolution. From there, mosquitoes teeming in the summer heat transmitted it from person to person as doctors struggled to contain a disease that, at its peak, killed 100 people a day.
The death toll and devastation reminded Benjamin Rush 1760 of the Black Plague. “It comes nearer to it than any disease we have ever before had in this country,” he wrote during the first weeks of the epidemic. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s pre-eminent physician, Rush diagnosed the city’s first case of yellow fever in August. As Philadelphians fled the city in droves, he chose to remain and treat the sick — though neither common fever remedies (wine and sweating) nor Rush’s own prescriptions (bleeding and purging) had any effect. Some patients died in a matter of hours. Few survived more than four days.
“Tell the whole village of Princeton to pray constantly and fervently for us,” Rush wrote his wife, Julia, a member of Princeton’s distinguished Stockton family. Only God could save them, “for vain — vain now is the help of man.”
Yet Rush did have help in Philadelphia. Across the city, African Americans (whom white Americans wrongly believed to be immune to the disease) served as nurses, caretakers, and gravediggers in large numbers. They were “indefatigable,” Rush said — and none more than his own assistant, Marcus Marsh.
“Marcus [Marsh] has not, like Briarius, a hundred hands, but he can turn his two hands to a hundred different things.”
Marsh was born into slavery in 1765, on the Morven estate in Princeton. After his mother’s death, the lady of the house, Annis Boudinot Stockton, nursed the infant Marsh, raising him “almost as my own son.” The “almost” was key; Marsh had no rights until the Stocktons freed him in 1781. By 1793, he was working for Annis’ son-in-law Rush as a servant and, in Philadelphia, as a medical assistant.
In a letter to Julia, Rush compared Marsh to a Greek god with 100 arms: “Marcus has not, like Briarius, a hundred hands, but he can turn his two hands to a hundred different things.” He was “equal to any apothecary in town,” more competent even than some physicians Rush knew. His courage was most remarkable of all.
“Half the servants in the city have deserted their masters” to escape the disease, Rush wrote in October. Marsh, however, stayed to fight the epidemic alongside Rush. When the doctor himself contracted yellow fever, Marsh brought him food, water, and medicine in the night; he fed the weakened Rush; and he visited Rush’s children outside the city to examine them.
“I cannot tell you how much we all owe to Marcus,” Rush wrote to his wife when the epidemic finally subsided in November. Without him, the nation’s most famous physician might too have numbered among the dead.