Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Yellow Fever - The American Plague

My reading has taken me to Memphis, Tennessee. The year is 1878. A yellow fever epidemic has vanquished the citizens of this Mississippi River city. Half of the city's 50,000 people - the lucky, wealthy ones - have deserted the town and fled to rural areas. The rest, mostly the poor and the black, are dying from the fever that causes piercing headaches, abdominal cramps, and black vomit brought on by internal hemorrhaging. The skin of the infected turns deep gold and the whites of their eyes turn bright yellow. Death is a welcome relief.

These are the conditions that Molly Caldwell Crosby writes about in her book The American Plague. That year, there were a 120,000 cases of the fever reported in the Mississippi Valley and the it took the lives of more than 20,000 people. In Memphis alone, 5,000 died in a few short months. The epidemic's cost of $15 million bankrupted the city.

It is chilling to read of the tumbrels canvassing the city and their drivers calling, "Bring out your dead." 

Just as the fleas on rats carried the Black Death of the Middle Ages, in the case of yellow fever, or yellow jack as it was sometimes called, the culprit was another nasty insect: aedes aeygpti, the Egyptian mosquito. The deadly mosquito found its way to the ports of the Western Hemisphere on slave ships. And just as in the Middle Ages, no one knew what brought on the fever and gruesome death of so many.

Much of the cause of the spread of the disease was the government's inability to take seriously the threat and business's refusal to quarantine ships which would mean an interruption to  trade. Unfortunately, that sounds all too familiar even today.

But, The American Plague is not just the story of death. It also the story of the search by scientists and physicians - one was Walter Reed - to find the cause and cure of yellow fever.  Although there is no cure, there is a vaccination against the virus which, according the the World Health Organization, continues to cause some 30,000 deaths each year worldwide. 

I bought this book in Memphis on the Grand Southern Literary Tour after a conversation with the historian at the Elmwood Cemetery where some 2500 victims of the fever - including doctors, nurses, and ministers who helped the sick - are buried. 

The author is from Memphis and has done a fine job of capturing the horror of the time.  It is a true story of a medical mystery.


  1. I love reading books like this. It is so interesting (and horrifying..) how quickly something can spread, and I like how this book also involves what science was trying to do to stop it.

  2. Hi Kelly. It was fascinating to read about this part of American history. I had no idea about yellow fever epidemics and that it took almost 60 years after the 1878 crisis to determine what caused the illness and to develop a vaccine.

    Who would think that such a tiny insect could cause so much death and heartache. And continues to do so.

    The author did a wonderful job of researching and quoted from letters and newspaper articles to tell the story. A fine piece of writing.