BEING A DOCTOR during Savannah’s yellow fever epidemic was a tough gig.
Antibiotics wouldn’t be invented for another century, leeches were considered the most effective “cure” in your medicine bag, and you were lucky if your patients lived long enough to pay your ten dollar fee.
Everything was worse if you were a woman in those times, but that didn’t stop Mary Lavinder from practicing medicine.
Born Oct. 18, 1778, the plucky third child of failed Burnside Island plantation owner Benjamin Lavinder pursued her Hippocratic ambitions through books, then traveled north around 1812 to study midwifery under Dr. Thomas C. James at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Her gender prevented her from receiving an official degree, but she returned to Savannah to treat patients for obstetrics-related conditions (i.e., birthing babies) and also played a vital role in ministering to the sick during the dreaded pestilence of the 1820s.
Though she eschewed the title, she was known as “Dr. Lavinder” by her patients and the other physicians of the time. Her 1845 obituary describes a no-nonsense, capable practitioner who cared for the poor, homeless and terminally ill during the plague, “regardless of the danger of what many then considered an infectious disease.”
This fascinating and formidable character has been brought back to life for “Yellow Fever in Savannah 1820,” the Isaiah Davenport House’s annual homage to Savannah’s ghastly true stories. Every October since 2003, the public has been invited to tour the restored Federal-style mansion led by docents in period dress who describe the drama and details of the era. This year, the interactive performances take place on Friday and Saturday evenings all month (with the exception of Oct. 15), a rare occasion that the house museum is open after dark.
The Davenport House staff uses historical archives and forgotten artifacts to stage the terrible time that began in January 1820 with a fire that destroyed the downtown business district and ended with more than 660 dead from a mysterious, violent fever.
“The year starts with one disaster and ends with another,” says playwright and historical interpreter Raleigh Marcell. “A lot happened in between.”
History buffs may think they know all that transpired in Savannah in 1820, but Marcell and co-creator Jamal Touré always seem to unearth new facets of the narrative. Marcell first came across the scant historical mentions of Dr. Lavinder when researching the 2006 performance and mined them to create a script around Savannah’s—and the state of Georgia’s—first female physician.
“There is just her obituary and a couple of letters. You’d think she would have left more of a documentary trail,” laments Marcell.
Still, those few documents yield a surprisingly rich focus for interpretation in context of the yellow fever epidemic. Local actor Allison Maher plays the part of the esteemed doctor, who is joined by better known historical counterparts Dr. William Waring and Mayor Thomas U.P. Charlton.
“These are all actual Savannahians who experienced yellow fever, and we use their words to tell the story,” points out Marcell.
The period-correct stage is set in the Kennedy Pharmacy, enriched by photos and illustrations that evoke 19th century Savannah. Visitors then move into the house itself to encounter more scenes, the halls and spiral staircase illuminated by lanterns. A visit to Dr. Lavinder’s office reveals more of the “cutting edge” treatments at the physician’s disposal, a testament to why this event is a favorite with the Halloween scare set.
In the attic, Touré reprises his role as a free person of color, this time captivating audiences with the funereal practices of enslaved Africans, who were not counted in the historical records.
“Thanatopsis,” the haunting poem by “hit poet of the day” William Cullen Bryant, accompanies more characters as they struggle with the disease. In the parlor, Savannah Arts theater major Anna Smith performs a traditional mourning song after the worst happens.
A ghostly figure played by another Savannah Arts student, Maggie Hannan, will muse on the “destination of the soul” excerpted from a Washington Irving essay from the time, making this a true multimedia affair.
The 75-minute program is recommended for children 12 and older and requires the ability to walk up and down stairs in semi-darkness.
Re-enacting the same year in history might make some feel like they’re trapped in a loop, but Davenport House executive director Jamie Credle says audiences have an insatiable curiosity for yellow fever.
“Every year, we always think we’re going to give it a rest, but then people get upset,” laughs Credle. “Almost every performance sells out.”
That might have something to do with how history tends to repeat itself. This year’s interpretation is made even more relevant since the same species of mosquito that was finally discovered to spread yellow fever is the same one that carries the Zika virus today. Mayor Charlton’s announcement back in 1820 to turn away those coming into the Savannah port from foreign lands mirrors current calls to limit immigration over fear of an epidemic.
The risk of a plague like the ones that ravaged Savannah in the 19th century are fairly low, thanks to the miracles of modern medicine. Two hundred years ago, however, any hope would have been placed in what was in the physician’s black bag. Though her records might be few, it is clear that Mary Lavinder provided much more than that.
One excerpt describes her pulled in a carriage by her old white horse, distributing coffee and blankets to the infirm and acting as a “ghostly comforter” to the hopeless. She was a figure of mercy, one of the original founders of the First Presbyterian Church and “remained a spinster” her entire life. Even after she was offered a job in obstetrics at Harvard, Dr. Lavinder chose to stay in Savannah to minister to the sick and poor.
Perhaps now that she has been revived in the halls of the Davenport House, history won’t let her be forgotten once more.
“She was one of the more extraordinary women which our state has produced,” read her obituary.
“Long will it be before we shall look upon her like again.”