Noah Webster, Yale Alumnus, Honored as Founder of Epidemiology

Prof. Curtis Patton. 

In a highlight of Yale University’s celebration of alumnus Noah Webster, Curtis Patton, professor emeritus at the Yale School of Public Health, honored the man best known for his dictionary as the “father of epidemiology and public health in America.” “Research into epidemics—investigating causes of disease—was a major force in Webster’s career as a public servant,” Patton said at a lecture Thursday, the opening day of a schoolwide birthday tribute, “Noah Webster 250: Shaping a Language, Defining a Nation.”

Driven by concern for humanity, an insistence upon social order, and a desire to bolster American mercantile trade, Webster examined diseases such as yellow fever and smallpox, working with the science available in the late 18th century to refine theories and practices of disease prevention and control.

Patton said that C.–E.A. Winslow, the University’s first chair of public health in 1915, habitually reviewed and critiqued Webster’s writings.

Pouring over historical records and anecdotal evidence, Webster “synthesized vast quantities of material,” said Patton, to complete a not–so–modest undertaking, “A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Disease,” that was published in 1799. Though he gave undue emphasis to “atmospheric” factors (including the electrical changes in the atmosphere, comets and meteors) and too little to the germs and viruses yet to be discovered, Webster did observe that “local causes” such as pollution seemed to render yellow fever more severe, and suggested the futility of quarantine in treating epidemics. He also was bold enough to vaccinate himself and at least one of his daughters with a strain of smallpox, understanding that a weakened virus fosters immunity.

“Without a laboratory, Webster relied on history and statistics to write the first general history of epidemiological diseases,” Patton said during his talk in Sterling Memorial Library. “He didn’t get everything right, but he thought about things very carefully and courageously.”