Saturday, June 20, 2015

Galveston, “Yellow Jack” & UT Medical Branch

Back in late February, hubby and I visited Galveston to research the setting for my new release, Decoding Michaela (Romancing the Guardians, Book Two). On our first day there, we took an historical tour of the oldest part of the city and lunched at Fisherman’s Wharf, a wonderful seafood restaurant on the bay side of the island. Seated next to the windows, we admired the tall ship Elissa, a restored 1877 three-masted barque moored close by, outside the Texas Seaport Museum.

Photo 1 taken by sailor in U.S. Navy, in public domain; Photo 2 taken by author's husband

The day was cold and windy, so we passed up going aboard the ship, although my ever-helpful mate did snap several shots of her. Then we toured the museum, watched a fascinating video detailing the Elissa’s restoration, and purchased several books in the gift shop. One, Galveston A History by David G. McComb, was recommended by our historical tour guide, and it’s excellent.

While I haven’t yet read the whole book, being occupied with writing, one part caught my attention. (See why below.) In a chapter titled “The Oleander City” I came across several pages devoted to the scourge of “Yellow Jack” (yellow fever) and how the prestigious University of Texas Medical Branch came to be located on the island.

Yellow fever plagued our southern coastal cities in earlier times. New Orleans, Galveston and Houston suffered many terrible epidemics. In 1839, virtually everyone in the city of Galveston took sick with the fever. Symptoms ranged from chills, fever, headache, body aches, nervousness and jaundice to severe vomiting and coma. In the last stages, victims threw up “black vomit” caused by internal bleeding, usually resulting in death. One-fifth to one-forth of victims died. Survivors were henceforth immune to the disease.

Aedes aegypti, the yellow fever mosquito; note white
markings on its legs and thorax
Yellow fever is carried by a certain type of mosquito, but this was not discovered until the early 20th century, thanks to experiments conducted in Cuba by U.S. Army physician Major General Walter Reed and colleagues. Prior to then, doctors believed the fever was spread by contact with clothing and bedding soiled by victims.

Major General Walter Reed, ca. 1901; in public domain

Treatments included confinement to bed, mustard baths for the feet and plasters on the stomach, cold compresses on the forehead, moderate food, warm tea and “no busybodies in the room.” Hmm, that last one might make the sufferer feel better for a little while. You think?

“Burning tar fumigated the city, grass filled with small green frogs grew rank on the Strand [a main street], and ringing of church bells for the deceased was so constant that it irritated the sick and living.” One resident “observed the beds of the dying drawn close to open windows—white faces with cracked ice to cool them, moaning, raving, shrieking, vomiting, and a strong, sickle smell of yellow fever mixed with the heavy, sweet odor of oleanders.” ~McComb

Red oleander; I have one in my backyard. It's gorgeous!

Eventually, quarantine was recognized as the best way to halt the spread of an outbreak. Mosquitoes spread the disease by ingesting blood from an infected human and passing on the virus to the next person they bite. By quarantining affected people, the spread was stopped. However, harsh measures were often necessary to prevent panicked Galvestonians from fleeing the island when cases of Yellow Jack popped up. Armed militiamen stopped trains carrying terrified citizens across the bay to the mainland. All transport of goods and people between New Orleans and the island was halted, angering merchants but saving lives. The same applied to other cities. Yellow fever deaths in Galveston decreased from hundreds or thousands in earlier epidemics to only seven in 1873. From then on both Texas and Louisiana employed strict quarantines.

 According to McComb, it was Galveston’s comparatively high disease rates “which brought to it the city’s most prestigious institution, the University of Texas Medical Branch.” A key player in this accomplishment was Ashbel Smith. Called “Old Ashbarrel” behind his back, Smith was a small man with strong opinions and a hot temper. He studied medicine at Yale and in Paris, came to Texas shortly after the revolution (Texas’s of course) and became the Republic’s first surgeon general. He served in the Texas legislature, fought in the War with Mexico and was wounded fighting for the Confederacy in the Battle of Shiloh.

Statue of Ashbel smith in Baytown, his home across
 Galveston Bay form the island

A colleague of Smith's, Greensville Dowell, helped start Galveston Medical College in 1865, but the college faltered due to trouble between Dowell and the faculty. Smith helped his friend reorganize the school into the Texas Medical College in 1873. He was a trustee for the University of Texas and president of the Texas State Medical Association. As cities competed for the colleges, he argued before the legislature in favor of Galveston because "the Island City possessed size, wealth, opportunity to study diseases, noble citizens, and a school already in operation." Students needed practical experience as well as theoretical learning, he stressed, and Galveston offered that.

Opponents argued that the island was too vulnerable to hurricanes and the Texas Medical College didn't amount to much. However, the small private college graduated eight newly minted doctors in 1880, and the Galveston Daily News boasted, "No city in the south possesses better hospital accommodations and a greater diversity of diseases than Galveston."

In October 1881 Texans voted to locate the UT Medical campus in Galveston. Construction of the Ashbel Smith Medical Building was begun in 1890. John Sealy Hospital opened that same year, and the medical school -- now affectionately known as "Old Red" because of its exterior of red brick, red Texas granite columns and sandstone embellishments -- began operation in 1891.

Ashbel Smith Medical Building, photo from Wikipedia commons

 Since opening its doors, the medical school has grown from one building with 23 students and 13 faculty members to a modern health science center with more than 70 buildings, over 2,500 students and more than 1,000 faculty members. We were unable to see Old Red for ourselves because it is now completely surrounded by the sprawling complex, and I was not up to walking into the center of the maze. But I found the above photo online. Isn't the architecture magnificent?

So, why was I so interested in the history and of UT Medical Branch? Because the heroine of Decoding Michaela did her residency there and practices her specialty, psychiatry, on the island.

Now let me introduce you to Michaela and her wannabe hero, Dev Medina.

Peterson lived in Galveston’s historic East End, where nineteenth century architecture harked back to the island’s heyday. Some of the Victorian homes – Painted Ladies he’d heard them called because of their many colors – were of average size, others he would call mansions. All were ornate and pricey, meaning the doc must be doing okay, no surprise for a doctor, Dev supposed.
Familiar with the area, it didn’t take him long to find the right house. He parked out front and looked the place over. Raised on stilts or blocks like most buildings on the island after the deadly hurricane of 1900, it was two stories high but not very wide, with only a few yards separating it from neighboring homes.
Dev assumed the house had suffered flood damage in Hurricane Ike, but the owner had obviously seen to its repair. Painted light tan with darker tan and green trim, decked out with fancy Victorian gingerbread, and framed by palm trees and oleanders, the place was picture-perfect.
Striding up the pavestone walk, he climbed a flight of steps to the front door and pressed the buzzer. Nervous because he still didn’t know exactly what he would say to the doctor, he stuffed both hands in his pants pockets and waited. Within seconds, he heard footsteps approach inside. The door opened to reveal a stout woman with tan skin and graying hair combed tightly back from her round face. A dark blue dress outlined her matronly form.
“Can I help you, señor?
“Yes ma’am, I’m here to see Dr. Peterson. I phoned earlier.”
“Ah, sí, I remember. The doctor came home a few minutes ago only. I do not think –”
“Who is it, Bianca?” a woman called from somewhere within. Her voice sounded familiar.
“It is a man who called before, señora.”
Dev heard high heels clicking on a tile floor. The housekeeper – he assumed that’s who she was – stepped aside. A tall woman walked out of the shadows and Dev stopped breathing. It was Mickie, his golden goddess! Instead of a sarong, she now wore a black cocktail dress that hugged her shapely figure then flared out below her hips, ending a few inches above her knees, showing off long, gorgeous legs. She looked sophisticated and every bit as beautiful as on the beach.
“You!” she blurted, halting a few feet away, light eyes wide with surprise. “Did you follow me?”
Dev released his breath. “No ma’am. I’m here to see Dr. Peterson.” He paused to clear his raspy throat. “I had no idea I’d find you here.”
She frowned. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Uh, no, but I need to speak to him, the doctor, I mean.”
Her lips quirked upward and she made a strangled sound, like suppressed laughter. “Oh, you do, do you?”
“Yeah, it’s urgent. Are you his wife?” He sure hoped not. “Can you give him a message for me?”
Her half-smile faded. “No, I am not his wife and I won’t take a message. If you really need to see the doctor, call the office on Monday and make an appointment.” She started to shut the door but Dev grabbed the edge of it and stopped her.
“I said this is urgent. It can’t wait ’til Monday.”
“Let go of the door!” she demanded, angry color flooding her cheeks.
“Un-uh. Is the doc here? Tell him I must speak to him. Now.”
She glared ice-cold daggers at him. “I am the doc!” she said through gritted teeth. “And I demand you let go of my door!”
Stunned, Dev nearly lost his hold. “You’re Dr. Michael Peterson?”
“No, you dunderhead! I’m Dr. Michaela Peterson. Now release this door and leave right now, or I will call the police.”
“Ah, hell!” Feeling like a damn fool, Dev sighed and shook his head. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I mean Dr. Peterson. I got the code wrong. I missed the ‘A’ at the end of your name.”
She stopped shoving at the door but continued to scowl at him. “Code? What code? What are you talking about?”
“The code Lara Spenser had me decipher. I’m here to deliver a message for her.”
The doc’s fine golden brows lifted. “I don’t know any Lara Spenser,” she said uncertainly.
Dev frowned, wondering if she was playacting because she didn’t trust him. Then it dawned on him that Spenser might be an alias Lara was using to conceal her true identity. “Maybe not, but you do know her uncle,” he replied. “Or you did. His name was Malcolm Flewellen.”
She sucked in her breath audibly. “Did you say was?”
“Yes ma’am. He was killed in a car accident several months ago.”
“Oh no!” Color drained from her face. Releasing the door, she staggered off balance and sagged against the entry wall.
“Hey, easy there!” Alarmed, Dev threw the door wide open, stepped inside and gripped her arms. “Don’t go fainting on me."

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  1. Interesting post, Lyn. I didn't realize the medical school had been in Galveston that long. I loved DECODING MICHAELA and wish you the best of success with this book and future releases.

  2. Thank you, Caroline. I wish you the same. I didn't even know UTMB existed until I started researching for Michaela's story. Isn't it amazing how much we writers learn through our writing adventures!

  3. As a kid I remember reading the adventures of a 10 year old boy staying with his grandparents in New England because of Yellow Fever in Louisiana. So, I knew about Louisiana, but I didn't know Galveston was involved with Yellow Fever as well.
    I never saw a picture Gen. Walter Reed before. I only knew about the veterans' hospital named for him in D.C.
    It sure sounds pretty dang miserable for those people suffering through it--and deadly.
    I love tall ships. They are so majestic and beautiful. Loved the pictures.
    All good things to your corner of the universe, Lyn.

  4. Thank you, Sarah. I love the tall ships too. The Elissa was about to be scrapped when she was rescued. It took years to restore her. Maybe I'll write more about that in a future post.

    Yellow fever was a deadly scourge in the old days, even reaching inland. I remember reading about cases of it on an army post . I think Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Today, there is a vaccine for the disease, but it still kills quite a few people in tropical, undeveloped parts of the world.

    Thanks for stopping by. Happy writing!

  5. Very interesting post, Lyn. Love learning something new. Great excerpt from Decoding Michaela, too. I look forward to reading it. :)

  6. Many thanks, Ashley. Glad you enjoyed the excerpt! I love learning new stuff too.


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