• Kristin Wenger

The Saffron Scourge and the Med Student (#52Ancestors week 30: Colorful)

I’ve had the song “Sweet Home Alabama” stuck in my head all day. Why, you ask? I’ve been immersed in the records of Cullman, Alabama while researching one of my great great grandfathers. His daughter, my great grandmother Alma, grew up in Alabama until her marriage and comes from a long line of Southerners.


Celebrating my great grandma’s 89th birthday with my Grandpa John (her son) and Grandma Lucy, July 1980. (Thanks, Mom, for taking this picture).


I have never been to Alabama, but as it turns out, Alma’s father, Francis Burrington Burnum, was a prominent citizen due to his role as Cullman’s town physician. [1]


F.B. Burnum (1854-1927) [2]


Unlike many of my other ancestors, F.B. (as he was frequently called) was prominent enough to be included in one of the “brag books” so common at the turn of the twentieth century. While all information may not be 100% reliable, the profiles in these books provide a wealth of information for further research.


A portion of F. B. Burnum’s profile in Notable Men of Alabama [3]


This book has been digitized, so those who are interested can read his entire profile here.


An interesting detail caught my attention. I’ve highlighted it in yellow below.


Since this week’s topic is “Colorful,” I decided to learn more about the yellow fever epidemic and F.B. Burnum’s role in it while he was a medical student.


VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY

First, I verified that my great great grandfather was indeed a medical student at Vanderbilt during the correct period of time.

Vanderbilt University [4]


Francis Burrington Burnum listed as a medical student at Vanderbilt University in 1879 [5]


He was a student during an interesting time for Vanderbilt and the University of Nashville.


"The Civil War and postwar readjustments influenced the future course of professional medicine in Tennessee. The Memphis Medical College reopened briefly following the Civil War, but folded in 1872. The Botanico-Medical College in Memphis suffered a similar fate. The Nashville medical school remained open, but never recovered sufficiently after the war. The newly established Vanderbilt University forged an agreement with the University of Nashville’s medical department in April 1874 that shared the faculty between the schools. The winner in this arrangement was Vanderbilt, which eventually outshone the University of Nashville. Two years later, Dr. Duncan Eve, a son of Dr. Paul F. Eve, and Dr. W. F. Glenn founded the Nashville Medical College. Its faculty came from Vanderbilt and the University of Nashville. In 1879 the Nashville Medical College became the Medical Department of the University of Tennessee." [6]

YELLOW FEVER

Because of the postwar adjustments of medical schools in Tennessee, it seems that my great-great grandfather and his colleagues truly were on the front lines of the yellow fever epidemic that impacted the entire Mississippi River Valley south of St. Louis.

“Tens of thousands fled the stricken cities of New Orleans, Vicksburg, and Memphis. An estimated 120,000 cases of yellow fever resulted in some 20,000 deaths.”[7]
Memphis suffered several epidemics during the 1870s, culminating in the 1878 epidemic (called the Saffron Scourge of 1878), with more than 5,000 fatalities in the city. People still did not understand how the disease developed or was transmitted, and did not know how to prevent it.”[8]

It must have been both a fascinating and frightening time to be a medical student in this region.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United States, Caribbean, and South America experienced several major outbreaks of yellow fever, devastating local populations. Yellow fever takes its name from the yellow-ish color of affected patients’ skin and eyes. The virus affects multiple organ systems and causes internal bleeding; it can be fatal. Yellow fever broke out in Boston in 1693, Philadelphia in 1793 and Norfolk, Virginia in 1855, but the worst American outbreak of yellow fever occurred in the Mississippi River Valley in 1878.
Over the course of spring and summer of 1878, this region recorded 120,000 cases of yellow fever and between 13,000 and 20,000 deaths from the disease. The outbreak originated in New Orleans and spread up the Mississippi River and inland. The yellow fever epidemic impacted nearly all aspects of life in affected cities as residents fled, economies suffered, and thousands died. Memphis, Tennessee, was hit particularly hard, with over 20,000 residents fleeing the city. In the wake of the epidemic, cities implemented new public health and sanitation practices in an effort to prevent another outbreak. In 1900, researchers confirmed that yellow fever is transmitted by a species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, which is native to Africa and flourishes in tropical and subtropical climates.[9]

The medical school at Vanderbilt in 1878-1879 was extremely involved with fighting the epidemic and studying the disease. One of the faculty members wrote a book on the subject.

Yellow Fever by Dr. Thomas O. Summers, 1879 [10]


Dedication page for the book [11]


While a student at this university, my great great grandfather had “assisted in the burial of those physicians who lost their lives in the yellow fever epidemic.” [12] He likely knew these men well and had worked alongside them giving medical treatment to those suffering from the disease.

Yellow Fever Camp Near Memphis During the Epidemic [13]


CAREER AFTER MEDICAL SCHOOL

At first, F.B. returned home to Alabama to practice medicine with his father.


1880 census: "F. Burrington" and his father both list occupation as "Physician & Farmer." [14]


In 1881, he married Susan Catherine (Adkins) Barnett, a young widow with a baby. [15]

Marriage certificate, 21 May 1881 [16]


They had eight children together, including my great grandmother Alma. [17]

He continued a long and successful medical career, as the two images below illustrate.


A 1904 ad states, "Calls promptly answered, day or night." [18]


"The day has never been too cold, the night too dark or the road too long for Doc Burnum to go to the sick, whether rich or poor, when called." [19]


Learning more about my great-great grandfather has been fascinating. His experience as a doctor in the post-Civil War South seems a world away from mine. Someday I might just need to make the trip to see his “Sweet Home Alabama.”


Read more #52Ancestors stories


Want to see more digitized original sources?


Sources:

[1] Joel C. DuBose, editor, “Francis B. Burnum, M.D.,” Notable Men of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical with Portraits, Vol. 2 (Atlanta, GA : Southern Historical Association, 1904), 389-390; digitized images, HathiTrust (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x002147594;view=1up;seq=399 : accessed 17 September 2018).


[2] Photograph, Ibid. For birth and death dates, see Find A Grave, database and images, FindAGrave (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 18 September 2018), memorial page for Dr F B Burnum (24 Dec 1854–2 Aug 1927), Find A Grave Memorial no. 30086929, citing Cullman City Cemetery, Cullman, Cullman County, Alabama, USA ; Maintained by SFC Kathline Forrester (contributor 46961246) .


[3] Ibid.


[4] “U.S. School Catalogs, 1765-1935,” database with digital images, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=2203 : accessed 18 September 2018) > Tennessee > Vanderbilt > 1880 > image 3 of 89.


[5] “U.S. School Catalogs, 1765-1935,” database with digital images, Ancestry (https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=2203 : accessed 18 September 2018) > Tennessee > Vanderbilt > 1880 > image 12 of 89, record of Francis Burrington Burnum.


[6] Jane Crumpler DeFiore, “Medicine,” Tennessee Encyclopedia (https://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/entries/medicine/ : accessed 18 September 2018).


[7] “History of Yellow Fever,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_yellow_fever : accessed 18 September 2018); citing Khaled J. Bloom, The Mississippi Valley's Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878, Louisiana State U. Press, 1993.


[8] “History of Yellow Fever,” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_yellow_fever : accessed 18 September 2018); citing M.C. Crosby, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History, 2006.


[9] “The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878,” Digital Public Library of America (https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/the-yellow-fever-epidemic-of-1878 : accessed 18 September 2018).


[10] Thos. O. Summers, M.D., Yellow Fever (Nashville, TN : Wheeler Brothers, 1879); digital images HathiTrust (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=loc.ark:/13960/t0sr01p97;view=1up;seq=7 : accessed 18 September 2018).


[11] Ibid.


[12] Joel C. DuBose, editor, “Francis B. Burnum, M.D.,” Notable Men of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical with Portraits, Vol. 2 (Atlanta, GA : Southern Historical Association, 1904), 389-390.


[13] “A page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1879 depicting camps established outside of Memphis during the yellow fever epidemic,” Digital Public Library of America (https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/the-yellow-fever-epidemic-of-1878/sources/1243 : accessed 18 September 2018).


[14] "United States Census, 1880," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33SQ-GYBM-HVW?cc=1417683&wc=QZ27-W76%3A1589394746%2C1589394896%2C1589395239%2C1589395228 : 24 December 2015), Alabama > Morgan > Beat 3 and 4 > ED 270 > image 1 of 12, F. Burrington Barnum [Burnum]; citing NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).


[15] Joel C. DuBose, editor, “Francis B. Burnum, M.D.,” Notable Men of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical with Portraits, Vol. 2 (Atlanta, GA : Southern Historical Association, 1904), 389-390.


[16] "Alabama County Marriages, 1809-1950," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QSQ-G9HV-FB21?cc=1743384&wc=3LJP-YWT%3A1586948801 : 21 July 2015), 007316616 > image 143 of 955; County Probate Courts, Alabama.


[17] Joel C. DuBose, editor, “Francis B. Burnum, M.D.,” Notable Men of Alabama: Personal and Genealogical with Portraits, Vol. 2 (Atlanta, GA : Southern Historical Association, 1904), 389-390.


[18] “F.B. Burnum, Physician and Surgeon,” The Cullman Tribune (Cullman, Alabama), 27 May 1904, page 8, col. 1; digital image, Newspapers.com https://www.newspapers.com/clip/18139928/the_cullman_tribune/?xid=637 : accessed 30 December 2016).


[19] “Dr. F.B. Burnum for Treasurer,” The Cullman Tribune (Cullman, Alabama), 6 March 1908, page 1, col. 2; digital image, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/clip/18139786/dr_fb_burnum_for_treasurer/?xid=637 : accessed 30 December 2016).

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