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Noah Webster—from listing definitions to tracking disease

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2009 - Winter


Noah Webster, a 1778 graduate of Yale College, is best known for his eponymous dictionaries, but his lexicographical work is far from his sole achievement. Webster was also the largely unheralded “father of epidemiology—indeed, father of all public health in America,” said Curtis L. Patton, Ph.D., professor emeritus of epidemiology.

Patton, speaking at a celebration marking Webster’s 250th birthday in October, said Webster provided “the base upon which modern epidemiology is based, warts and all.” The “warts” stemmed from Webster’s doubts over the theory of contagion and his belief that meteors and other atmospheric conditions aggravated such outbreaks as the yellow fever epidemics he studied in the 1790s.

“We may laugh at all this, but we didn’t have any idea about disease causation at the time,” Patton said. Still, Webster knew enough to inoculate himself against smallpox and to warn of the limited benefits of quarantining people.

“He didn’t get everything right, but he was conscientious and careful” about gathering data, Patton said. Webster assembled enough of that data to write A Brief History of Epidemic and Pestilential Diseases (1799), which became a standard text in medical schools in the 19th century.

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