The Pest House
A Fascinating Chapter in Lynchburg’s Early Medical History
Dr. John Jay Terrell
“with a graveyard on one side, quartermaster’s glanders stable on the other, and smallpox hospital in the middle, one [is] reminded of the mortality of man.”
—Dr. Madison, inspector of hospitals, to Dr. John J. Terrell, who managed the Pest House (or Smallpox Hospital) during the Civil War
The Pest House, or House of Pestilence, was Lynchburg’s first hospital. It was located at the outermost edge of town, on land next to the Public Burying Ground (or City Cemetery). Throughout the 1840s and 1850s those infected with contagious diseases like smallpox, cholera, and scarlet fever, were quarantined in the Pest House.
The small, white-frame “Pest House Medical Museum” building–now located in the Old City Cemetery–was moved to the Cemetery in 1987 from Dr. John J. Terrell’s farm in Campbell County, Rock Castle. The structure was originally built in the 1840s and served as Dr. Terrell’s medical office after the Civil War. In 1987-88 the Southern Memorial Association restored the building to recreate and interpret medical science of the era. The medical office and Pest House exhibits have been joined in this museum to give a more complete picture of nineteenth-century medicine, while still telling two very separate stories.
Pest House Room
In the nineteenth-century, Lynchburg residents who contracted such contagious diseases as smallpox or measles were quarantined in the Pest House, which was originally located near Third and Wise Streets, within what is now the Old City Cemetery. The medical care and standards of cleanliness we know today were virtually non-existent, and most patients died. The dead were buried only a few yards away. By 1862 Lynchburg had become a major Civil War hospital center, and the Pest House was used as the quarantine hospital for Confederate soldiers.
Thirty-three year old Dr. Terrell discovered the wretched conditions in the Pest House and volunteered to assume responsibility for the soldiers.
“I put my painter and carpenter to work, using lime and yellow paint on outside and black on inside to save my patients’ eyes. […] To overcome the offensive odor I had dry white sand put on the floor. […] I had a barrel of linseed oil and limewater to use as an ointment, with which I greased sores, so had no more sticking of clothing.”
A monument to the memory of the 102 soldiers who died of smallpox during the Civil War is near the entrance to the adjacent Confederate Section of the Cemetery. The reforms enacted by Dr. Terrell reduced the Pest House mortality rate from 50 percent to five percent.
Dr. Terrell’s Office
For three years during the War between the States, “I worked over the dead and dying, some Federals,…and remained at my hospital till the first of June, 1865, until every man was discharged, then home without a cent to start the practice of medicine.”
Many patients came to Dr. Terrell’s office, and he traveled on horseback to others in their homes throughout the counties.
Dr. Terrell’s operating table, “poison chest,” “asthma chair,” and some of his instruments are part of the simple, colorful country furnishings. Among the collection of medical instruments are an 1860s hypodermic needle, clinical thermometer, and chloroform mask, which Dr. Terrell was the first in the area to use. The surgical amputation kit is pre-1885.
Quotations from Dr. John J. Terrell’s own reminiscences, “A Confederate Surgeon’s Story,” published in the Confederate Veteran magazine, December 1931.
© 2003–2011 by Southern Memorial Association