Read this book and you’ll think twice every time you are bitten by the lowly mosquito. American Plague, the first book written by author Molly Caldwell Crosby, chronicles the history of yellow fever – also known as Yellow Jack or American Plague.
If you trace the history of yellow fever, it would almost convince you that “more than any other disease, [yellow fever] would seem conjured by God and divinely directed.” At its very beginnings, yellow fever’s spread can be traced to those countries which profited from selling and trading Africans. Part of proving that postulation lies in the fact that Asia also had a climate conducive to mosquito populations, but that part of the world never participated in slave trade.
Yellow fever has a place in early American history as well. The original United States capital was in Philadelphia, but was moved to Washington D.C. after a yellow fever epidemic in 1793. Alexander Hamilton contracted the fever and George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson left the city.
American wars, both foreign and on our own soil, were marked by high incidences of death caused by diseases such as yellow fever, malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox. In fact, during the Civil War yellow fever was used (or at least attempted) as a form of biological warfare. At that time it was thought that yellow fever could be spread through infected bed linens, clothing and corpses.
Memphian Molly Crosby highlights the history of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic which devastated Memphis, Tennessee. That year marked the fifth epidemic of yellow fever to hit Memphis in the nineteenth century. Just five years prior, the 1873 Memphis epidemic had killed at least two thousand. The 1878 event infected several thousand and resulted in more than five thousand deaths – more deaths than other disasters of that era like the Chicago fire, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Johnstown flood combined.
Crosby chronicles some of the heroes and martyrs of that frightful fever season – from Army doctors to Catholic nuns. Her descriptions of the symptoms and the sheer terror are vivid enough to make us appreciate that over time yellow fever has been eradicated in America.
After the 1878 Memphis epidemic, commissions and health boards were formed to discover how, where and why yellow fever continued to plague the nation. The Army, of course, was always affected by the disease and took the lead in researching the cause which would later lead to the cure via a vaccine.
The third part of the book chronicles the efforts of scientists and doctors such as Walter Reed who tirelessly and meticulously worked to isolate the cause of yellow fever – most of their work done in Cuba since that seemed to be where the disease emanated from in the western hemisphere. Many doctors themselves died because of their determination to find a cause and cure, even willingly subjecting themselves to the ravages of the disease to advance medical science.
As demonstrated throughout the book, American medicine actually lagged behind the European countries at that point in history. If you’re interested in early American medical science, this is a good basic overview on how one disease was tracked down and conquered — and how American medicine eventually caught up to the rest of the world.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.