The Pest House and Dr. Terrell

On the eve of the American Civil War, Lynchburg was the second most wealthy locality per capita in the United States. Two contributing factors led to this distinction – transportation and tobacco. When the war began, these same factors caused Lynchburg to become a hub for soldiers mustering in to service and for sick and wounded.

Three railroads, six major roadways, the canal, and the James River made Lynchburg a natural base for the Confederate war effort. From the Hill City, troops could easily be sent to Richmond, the Shenandoah Valley, or to put pressure on Washington D.C, and conversely, the sick and wounded from the encampments and battlefields in those areas could be sent back to Lynchburg for care and convalesce. At this time, Lynchburg had many tobacco warehouses in what is today the downtown district. Many of these large open buildings became hospitals which, at times, held more than 10,000 sick or wounded soldiers at once.

In addition to battlefield wounds, many diseases spread rapidly through Confederate and Union camps alike. Additionally, at this time in history, most people never traveled more than about twenty miles from home except on very rare occasions. Because of this, most Civil War soldiers had not previously lived in close proximity to others and had little contact with those outside their town or village. As a result, most soldiers did not have immune systems built up for city and encampment living.

With the lack of immunity to certain diseases (not fully understood at the time) and the cramped conditions of the hospitals and the city which had more than doubled in population since the beginning of the war, horrible diseases such as smallpox caused perhaps more fear in Lynchburg than the threat of an advancing Union army. During the war, those with smallpox were sent to the House of Pestilence, or Pest House for short. This specialized hospital was reserved for those with the worst diseases and the least chance of survival. Because of this, most of the doctors in the city dared not venture to it. However, one doctor, Dr. John Jay Terrell, made the Pest House and those confined to it his personal mission.

Dr. Terrell’s ancestors had lived in the Lynchburg area at one time, but his family had moved north where he received a formal medical education. After he had completed his education, Dr. Terrell moved back to his ancestral home of Lynchburg and began practicing medicine. When the war began, Dr. Terrell was one of the few doctors in the area that had received an education in medicine because, at the time, an apprenticeship was still the common way to enter the field of medicine. In addition to his training, Dr. Terrell had a brilliant mind for medicine which led him to pioneer certain medical practices and breakthroughs during the war.

One of the changes in practice in the Pest House made by Dr. Terrell was painting the interior walls black to reduce strain on the patients’ eyes and cause them to rest better. Another was to spread sand on the floor to dampen the sound in the hospital and to absorb bodily fluids. He also sprinkled lime into the sand to reduce the horrible stench of the Pest House. While these practices all made the patients more comfortable and rest better, they were not Dr. Terrell’s most important breakthrough.

For most soldiers in the field as well as the hospital, the common meal was cornmeal of some kind and, when it was available, a bit of meat (often pork). Dr. Terrell, however, believed that the convalescing soldiers needed more in their diet. He knew that sauerkraut helped reduce scurvy which his patients did not suffer from; however, he believed that the fermented cabbage could still benefit those under his care. Although Dr. Terrell did not fully understand the benefits of sauerkraut, it provided the sick soldiers with important fiber, vitamins, and probiotics which greatly improved their condition. When Dr. Terrell took over the Pest House, the death rate was 50%. After he introduced these new practices, the death rate dropped to just 5%.

After the war, Dr. Terrell continued his more than forty years of caring for the Lynchburg area’s sick and wounded citizens and used the knowledge he learned during the war and improved upon it to do so.


Dr. John Jay Terrell

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