Typhoid Fever at the University (1829)
    by Olivia Beatty, Undergraduate Research Assistant (History, 3rd Year)

During the early months of 1829, the University became afflicted with a contagious and, in some cases, fatal Typhoid Fever epidemic. The malady was first reported back in December but, to the vexation of the Chairman and Faculty, cases continued to emerge through March.


According to the Faculty Minutes, 20 out of 117 students were afflicted, and by February 62 students had withdrawn from the Institution. Many students returned home for fear of becoming ill, but the Faculty suspected that the “worst” and most “idle” students requested leave due to the fever “as a means of eluding the examinations.” When the Faculty decided to suspend lectures until March 1, students also used this recess as an excuse to dismiss prevailing rules and regulations. Two students, Mr. Toombs and Mr. McMahon, believed that the suspension of lectures provided them the freedom to introduce guns onto the premises. Of course, the Chairman admonished them for their dangerous behavior and told the students that the Enactments against firearms must still be obeyed.


By mid-February, the Proctor was ordered to begin chlorine fumigation in the dormitories as well as “whitewashing and scouring.” To whitewash a room meant to paint onto the walls a lime wash coat, which was a common way to “clean” unsanitary buildings.  The Proctor was also charged with fumigating furniture in one of the Hotels, which had been temporarily transformed into an infirmary. In addition to these purification measures, the Proctor “was further urged to leave no room for suspicion that the authorities had not been sufficiently active in their precautionary measures during the recess.” The reputation of the University remained a major concern for the Faculty. It was presumed that the mass exodus of students from the University “spread an alarm through the Country highly calculated to injure the institution.” In order to “relieve public anxiety” the school appointed a committee comprised of three outside members of the community to inspect the Grounds and report back on the state of the University. However, newspaper articles were still being printed about the school, which were “calculated to make permanent impressions injurious to the University.” In order to assuage the public, the school printed its own explanatory paragraph in the Richmond Enquirer and National Intelligencer to better enlighten the situation. By April 1, and after the death of four students, lectures were permitted to reconvene and the institution was officially re-opened.


This tragic episode portrays a young and burgeoning institution that was deeply concerned for its reputation.


University of Virginia. Journal of the Chairman of the Faculty, 1828-1829 University of Virginia. Faculty Minutes, 1829