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Sunday April 26, 2015
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Ague in Ann Arbor

 

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In 1831 Pennsylvania immigrant John Ansley collapsed on the side of the road to Ann Arbor. "We had not accomplished more than half our journey," his wife, Philena, later wrote, "when my husband was taken with the fever and ague, and was obliged to lie down by the roadside and wait the approach of some person with a team, or until he should be able to proceed on foot."

The disease the settlers called "the ague" ("aig-yew"; from the Latin febris acuta, "sharp fever") is one of the oldest known human plagues, described by Herodotus. It's now known as malaria--and it still afflicts up to half a billion people worldwide. Though now largely confined to the tropics, in the infant United States malaria was common as far north as New England. Endemic in then-swampy Michigan, it was a leading sickness in nineteenth-century Washtenaw County.

Anson Van Buren, who settled in Calhoun County in 1836, described the disease as a chill that "crept over your system in streaks, faster and faster, and then colder and colder in succeeding undulations that coursed down your back." The chills caused shaking so violent that "the dishes rattled on the shelves against the log wall." Afterward came fever, sweat, and relief. Then the cycle repeated, sometimes for months.

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