The coronavirus pandemic is the most serious medical event in the region since the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic.

But the Owensboro region has dealt with many health emergencies in the past two centuries.

And in most of those years, medical care was barely available.

It was 1811, at least 15 years after the first permanent settlers arrived in what’s now Owensboro, before a doctor settled here.

John Roberts, a 23-year-old physician, established the community’s first medical practice that year.

Before his arrival, the settlers made do with what remedies they had learned through folklore or trial-and-error.

And this wasn’t a healthy place in those days.

An 1819 letter written from Owensboro says: ‘’This place is one of the most unhealthy situations in the union, not one mite better than New Orleans.

“The inhabitants of this place die very fast with a disease called the black vomit — but it is the same disease which they call at Orleans the yellow fever.’’

Drainage was poor in the Panther Creek area.

And sick people were frequently getting off boats at the Owensboro wharf.

In 1833, the entire state was swept with a cholera epidemic.

Several Daviess Countians were among those who died.

Measles is a minor disease for most people today and vaccines can eliminate it.

But the measles epidemic that swept Owensboro in March 1844 claimed several lives.

More deaths were reported in a cholera epidemic here in 1850.

Dr. William D. Stirman recalled the ‘’Plague of 1854,’’ a year before his death in 1893.

‘’In the late summer,’’ he said, ‘’a steamboat landed here with four or five sick persons on board. Dr. Wall, my brother-in-law, was called to attend them and pronounced the disease a very distinct type of cholera.

‘’There were four cases that day and all died before the next morning.

“There were more than 30 deaths in Owensboro and the vicinity in the next few weeks. But when medical attention was gotten in time, there was no trouble in curing them.’’

Smallpox invaded the city in 1857.

Public meetings were forbidden in an effort to keep it from reaching epidemic stages.

January 1858 saw the county reeling under the effects of typhoid fever, pneumonia, smallpox and scarlet fever.

Smallpox struck again in 1863 and 1864, during the Civil War.

To prevent the spread of disease in August 1866, Mayor S.D. Kennedy ordered all streets and alleys cleaned of filth and decaying matter.

But there was still a small cholera epidemic that year.

Smallpox was reported here in January 1872.

An actress died of the disease at the old River Hotel.

Typhoid fever was the disease of the year in 1875.

At Grissom’s Landing in western Daviess County, John McFarland, 17, died one day.

His mother died three hours later.

Three days later, another child in that family died of the fever.

And Mrs. Alfred Grissom died soon after that.

Scarlet fever and typhoid fever epidemics raged here in 1877.

In July 1879, the city council placed a quarantine against all boats coming from the lower Mississippi Valley to prevent a yellow fever outbreak.

More than 20 malaria cases were reported here in 1881.

Things began to change in January 1882, when a city ordinance required all people 21 or older to be vaccinated and required parents to see that their children were vaccinated.

Failure to do so within one month would bring a fine of up to $20 — worth more than $500 today.

In March 1883, a sick visitor to the city was taken to City Hall for an examination by local doctors.

When they discovered that he had smallpox, he was taken to the city’s pest house and City Hall was quarantined.

And the procession to the pest house — near where Owensboro Health’s Parrish Avenue Campus is today — was preceded by police clearing the streets.

Pest houses, where people with communicable diseases were segregated with little medical care, were a fixture here until about 1920.

In April 1884, a black man was discovered to have smallpox.

Since there was no pest house for blacks, he was put in a boat and rowed to the Indiana shore.

Farmers met the boat with shotguns and told Owensboro to keep its smallpox.

A compromise was reached and the man was put ashore on Yellow Banks Island.

The man who rowed him over volunteered to stay with him until a nurse could be found.

Another case was taken to the island the following day.

To keep the disease out of the city, a $50 fine — worth about $1,250 today — was ordered imposed on any steamboat captain who put a case of smallpox ashore.

In September 1883, a city undertaker said he had buried 37 cases of typhoid in 1881, 24 in 1882 and only six to that date in 1883.

In March 1888, the city again passed a smallpox vaccination ordinance.

Women who didn’t want their arms disfigured for the bare arms and shoulders fashion of the era decided to be vaccinated on less-exposed portions of their bodies and began practicing the “vaccination walk.’’

City police met all incoming trains in September 1897.

People arriving from areas with yellow fever were reported to local doctors.

When a man named Wells was found with smallpox near Moseleyville in March 1899, people nailed him up in a cabin until he was well.

A shotgun quarantine was enforced on those exposed to him.

When W.T. Aull, 60, chief deputy county clerk, died of smallpox at 8 p.m. on Dec. 30, 1899, he was buried in Elmwood Cemetery by two ex-Confederate comrades who had had the disease.

The burial occurred at 2 a.m. to prevent spreading the disease.

Lewisport forbade anyone coming from Owensboro to enter that city until the scare was over.

Twenty-two cases of typhoid were reported at Ellendale College near Curdsville in December 1901.

Seven of them died.

In the summer of 1902, Kentucky closed its borders to Hoosiers.

No one from Indiana was allowed to enter Kentucky without proof of vaccination.

Perhaps the last major deadly epidemic here before this year was the influenza epidemic of 1917-18.

Dozens died in the area.

Polio plagued the region until the 1950s.

But the past 60 years saw no health scares in the area — until now.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301 klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301

klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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