Typhoid fever–that was the cause of death of Frank T. Ludey, who died in Summit, NJ, on January 11, 1900, after a sixteen-day illness. The death certificate arrived in the mail on Tuesday from the New Jersey Department of Health Archives and solves the mystery as to what took Frank at such a young age. Sadly he was affected before a vaccine appeared nine years later that, combined with improvements in sanitation, drastically reduced the number of typhoid cases in the US.
Per the CDC website, while there are relatively few cases these days here, in the developing world, over twenty million are affected annually with a 10-30 percent mortality rate. Where Frank may have contracted the bacteria Salmonella enterica, of course, we don’t know. The death certificate lists his occupation as “Commercial Traveler” (a.k.a. salesman); I can’t imagine that his travels took him outside the country but one never knows. According to the CDC, in 1900, “the incidence of typhoid fever was approximately 100 per 100,000 population; by 1920, it had decreased to 33.8…”
Typhoid can only be transmitted from human to human. According to Wikipedia, “the bacteria which causes typhoid fever may be spread through poor hygiene habits and public sanitation conditions, and sometimes also by flying insects feeding on feces.”
If left to run its course, the illness develops in four stages, each one lasting about a week. That Frank died in just over two, one can only imagine what sort of suffering he must have gone through. How horrible for his family and young wife to have to stand by helplessly as he suffered. It’s so tragic, and though he has been gone for 112 years now (hard to believe!), I can’t help but feel sad for him and his family.
I noticed on Wikipedia that typhoid fever has claimed a number of famous victims including Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams; William Wallace Lincoln, third son of President Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln; and Wilbur Wright of the famed Wright Brothers. It’s thought that typhoid fever may have wiped out the colony of Jamestown.
Not everyone who contracted it died, however. Some people were carriers of the disease without being affected themselves–the most notorious arguably being Typhoid Mary, a New York chef, who transmitted the bacteria to fifty-three, resulting in three deaths. Carriers were often institutionalized and many went mad from their confinement. At one point, Mary was released if she promised never again to work as a cook, which she did. Some time later, however, another outbreak occurred and it was traced back to her again (she had been working under a pseudonym). She spent the last 24 years of her life in quarantine on an island before succumbing to pneumonia.
So travelers today to the developing world are wise to get vaccinated beforehand.
Some tips from the CDC website under the heading “Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it”:
- “If you drink water, buy it bottled or bring it to a rolling boil for 1 minute before you drink it. Bottled carbonated water is safer than uncarbonated water.”
- “Ask for drinks without ice unless the ice is made from bottled or boiled water. Avoid popsicles and flavored ices that may have been made with contaminated water.”
- “Eat foods that have been thoroughly cooked and that are still hot and steaming.”
- “Avoid raw vegetables and fruits that cannot be peeled. Vegetables like lettuce are easily contaminated and are very hard to wash well.”
- “When you eat raw fruit or vegetables that can be peeled, peel them yourself. (Wash your hands with soap first.) Do not eat the peelings.”
- “Avoid foods and beverages from street vendors. It is difficult for food to be kept clean on the street, and many travelers get sick from food bought from street vendors.”
Oh dear, that last one reminds me of a disastrous few days spent in Paris in 1985. No doubt everyone has one story or another on the subject. Perhaps, it’s best to leave the topic behind.
Back to Frank, I wish we knew more about him and his young wife Metta who survived him by many years (she died in 1952). Perhaps in time, we’ll discover more clues. May they both rest in peace.