Yellow Fever: America’s Plague

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy.

Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.

The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever the Epidemic That Shaped our History by Molly Caldwell Crosby.

I read the nonfiction 2003 Newbery Honor book for children and young adults by Mr. Murphy first. All I knew, or thought I knew, about yellow fever before I read it was that it’s carried by mosquitoes, it’s common in the tropics, and Walter Reed figured out about the mosquitoes. It turns out that yellow fever isn’t confined to tropical climates, it is spread by mosquitoes, and Walter Reed had a little help. Oh, yes, and by the way, yellow fever hasn’t been eradicated, and there’s no cure. Treatment consists of rest, fluids, and time. You may or may not survive if you contract the disease. Thousands of Philadelphians in 1793 didn’t. Of course, many of them may have been bled to death by Dr. Benjamin Rush and his colleagues—who also believed in dosing patients with strong, nearly lethal, purgatives to make them vomit and eliminate all the “bad blood” collected in the digetive system. Rest, fluids, and time are starting to sound good, aren’t they?

The American Plague by Molly Caldwell, a nonfiction book for adults, focuses on two events: the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee in 1878 and the work of the Yellow Fever Commission in Cuba in 1900. Over one hundred years after the 1793 epidemic, doctors were still arguing about what caused yellow fever and how to prevent or to treat it. For prevention, some public health officials argued for a quarantine during the summer months if any cases of yellow fever were reported; others favored better sanitation and waste removal. Treatment came back to purgatives, quinine (good for malaria but ineffective against yellow fever), rest and fluids. Over five thousand people died in Memphis during the yellow fever outbreak of 1878 —more lives lost than in the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the Johnstown Flood combined.

In the fictional account of the Philadelphia 1793 yellow fever epidemic, Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson illustrates the deadly nature of yellow fever and its effects on the community with a story about Mattie Cook, a girl of fourteen who lives above a coffeehouse that provides her family’s livelihood. Since Mattie’s father is dead, Mattie’s mother, her grandmother, and the black cook, Eliza, run the coffeehouse, and Mattie and the serving girl, Polly, help. At the beginning of the book in August 1793, Mattie worries about her mother’s temper and about how to get a little extra sleep and avoid as much work as possible. By the end of the story, Mattie has been forced to take on adult responsibilities: nursing, providing food for her family, repelling thieves and intruders, and running the coffeehouse, to name a few. The tone and the narrative voice of a young lady growing into a woman are quite similar to that of Ann Rinaldi’s historical fiction novels, anchored by specific historical people and events.

Interesting factoids:

Alexander Hamilton fled Philadelphia to avoid the fever in August 1793. He got it anyway, but recovered so tat he could die in his infamous duel with Aaron Burr ten years later.

George Washington also left the city of Philadelphia, which was at the time serving as the U.S. capital, but he neglected to take many of his important state papers with him. Nobody wanted to go back inot fever-infested Philadelphia to fetch the papers, and Madison and Jefferson contended that it was unconstitutional for Comgress to convene outside of the capital city anyway. So, the country survived without much government at all for the weeks that it took for the yellow fever to run its course in Philadelphia.

Dolly Payne Madison lost her first husband, Mr. Payne, and her young son to the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Aaron Burr then introduced her to his friend James Madison, and she married Mr. Madison in 1794.

Dr. Benjamin Rush, a devout Christian and generally a good doctor, stayed in Philadelphia to treat the il, and at the height of the epidemic, he saw as many as 120 patients a day. Unfortunately, he truly believed the “cure” for yellow fever was to bleed and poison the fever out of his patients, and so he probably caused many of them to die. Dr. Rush himself fell ill with the fever during the 1793 epidemic, used his preferred treatment on himself, and survived.

George Washington laid the cornerstone for the U.S. capitol in Washington, D.C. on September 18, 1793 at the height of the yellow fever epidemic.

8 thoughts on “Yellow Fever: America’s Plague

  1. Sounds like a great trio on a fascinating subject!

  2. I’m glad you reviewed these – now I want to find them and read them.

  3. I read Fever 1793 earlier this year and really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about the epidemic and that point in history.

  4. Very interesting! Thanks for posting.

  5. Interesting books on an interesting disease… Wilmington NC was struck with Yellow Fever in 1863–during the Civil War, at a time when it was a bustling port for the South–those who could fled, a number who stayed to care for the sick died.

  6. clara

    The book “Fever” is one of my favorite books, it is written so well! I learned so much about the epidemic, and the terror that went through Philadelphia. It’s a truly breathtaking adventure.

  7. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on December 1, 2009, that 12 million people will receive the Yellow Fever vaccination in West African countries. This is a breakthrough, the medical world could not have done, if it was not for the work organizations, yourself conducted. Here, at (a non profit, website) would like to aid in spreading awareness for Yellow Fever. In the past, (a website dedicated to the prevention and treatment of diseases) has worked with several elite non profit organizations with great success. If you could, please list us as a resource or host our social book mark button, it would be much appreciated. Lets abolish Yellow Fever, for good.If you want more information on that please email me back with the subject line as your URL.

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