August 26

This Day in History

Disaster

Aug 26, 1948:

NYC and Philly sizzle in heat wave

On this day in 1948, the temperature hits 108 degrees Fahrenheit in New York City during a week-long heat wave that kills at least 33 people.

The intense heat hit the entire northeastern United States, but it was New York City and Philadelphia that suffered the most. In New York, thousands flocked to the beaches and a good portion stayed there at night, not wanting to return to their oppressively hot homes. At the time, there was much speculation that intense heat might cause mental problems. Hydrants were opened up throughout the city to help people cool off with the implicit permission of the authorities, since they wanted to keep everyone as calm as possible.

Babies Hospital in Manhattan reported that seven children came in on a single day showing severe dehydration and fever. This led to a key discovery by doctors that children under two years of age with prior cerebral defects were particularly susceptible to high temperature. This information now sometimes enables the diagnosis of subtle cerebral defects in children who were not known to have the condition.

The August heat wave was the culmination of an entire summer of intense heat in Philadelphia. The city, in an unprecedented coup, had managed to snag both the Republican and Democratic Party conventions (as well as the convention for third-party candidate Henry Wallace's Progressive Party). The heat was unbearable for the visitors—more than 100 of the Democratic delegates had to seek first-aid treatment during the convention. (No surprise then that it took more than 50 years for Philadelphia to win another convention—the Republican National Convention was finally held there again in 2000.)

A side note: It was during the record-setting heat wave that author E.B. White was holed up in New York's Algonquin Hotel writing the book Here is New York. It begins, "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largesse that accounts for the presence within the city's walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky."

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