Melinda's Reviews > An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

An American Plague by Jim  Murphy
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Jan 18, 2010

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bookshelves: science, american-history, medicine, 2010, worth-owning, history
Read in January, 2010

Ok, so I'm on a roll here reading about disease and epidemics! This one sparked my curiosity because in "The Great Influenza", Philadelphia is hit badly by the 1918 influenza epidemic. It looks like in this book Philadelphia was also badly hit in 1793 by the yellow fever epidemic. Gotta read it to find out more!

This book is a Newberry Honor book for children. As such it is not difficult reading at all, but still was worthwhile to read.

In the summer of 1793 yellow fever hit Philadelphia and killed 10% of the population of the city in the first month of the epidemic, eventually killing 4 to 5,000 people. At the time, the cause of yellow fever was unknown, and treatments went from mild to extreme. Philadelphia in the 1790's had cramped and dirty streets, trash and rubbish and sewage standing in stagnant ponds in the streets contributing to the breeding of mosquitos, the carrier for yellow fever.

The mosquitos that carried yellow fever to Philadelphia most likely came from Haiti where many French refugees fled from the revolution going on there, and arrived in Philadelphia. Some of these people may have been ill with yellow fever when they arrived, and also the ships may have brought mosquitos that were carriers into the city.

Controversy raged between doctors over appropriate treatment. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the founding fathers of the Unites States was also a physician. He was known as the "king of the bleeders" because that was his preferred way to treat yellow fever patients during the epidemic. One other physician at the time accused Dr. Rush of killing more yellow fever patients with his "cure" than would have died from the disease itself! It is hard to criticize either doctor, because of course neither one of them knew for sure what really caused yellow fever.

The epidemic waned as cooler weather came, as the marshes and swamps dried up (and thus the mosquitos had fewer breeding places). There were subsequent yellow fever outbreaks in following years, but never the extent of what they had been in 1793. The 1793 epidemic did result in a clean up of the streets of the city, removing dead animals and rubbish, emptying barrels of stagnant water and anything that contributed to the stench around the harbor area. In doing this, the mosquito breeding grounds were reduced, and that brought better health to the city even though they did not know that mosquitos were carriers of the disease.

Even more interesting to me was the fact that George Washington, President of the United States at the time, was kept from making important decisions largely because Congress could not be convened anywhere other than Philadelphia.... and yet all governmental officials had fled the city because of the epidemic. The founding fathers had had a healthy fear of a king whimsically calling the government into session in some remotely located area, thus keeping the government from holding him accountable.... so they had pretty much said that Congress could only meet in Philadelphia. The epidemic meant that for 6 to 8 weeks, no one could conduct any governmental business! So after the epidemic, Congress did allow a provision that the president could call congress into session at another location in emergency situations.

It is interesting to note that the issue of whether the United States would support their former ally, France, in their revolution needed to be decided in exactly this time. Because Washington was unable to convene Congress, this approval was delayed. And by the time the epidemic was over, support for the French issue had waned.
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message 1: by Janet (new)

Janet what is it about Philadelphia that we need to learn from (and avoid)? Anticipating with relish, your next review on this subject. Cheers!

message 2: by Janet (new)

Janet A fascinating review, especially about the pestilence overflowing from Haiti, and the part about the medical treatments of the day. Thank you!

Melinda Janet wrote: " what is it about Philadelphia that we need to learn from (and avoid)? Anticipating with relish, your next review on this subject. Cheers!"
After reading both books now, there really isn't a specific link that seemed to make Philadelphia "epidemic city". In the 1793 epidemic, the city suffered because swamps and marshes provided fertile breeding grounds for mosquitos.

In the 1918 influenza epidemic the city suffered because of lack of action from politicians who were more interested in having a huge parade in support of war bonds for WWI than in heeding the warnings of doctors who said that the parade would be THE best way to spread influenza. The politicians disregarded the advice from the medical community, went ahead and allowed the parade to happen, and thus allowed the very efficient infection of hundreds of people in those 3 to 4 hours. With the staggeringly terrifying result that we then read about in "The Great Influenza".

Moral of the story? Reduce mosquito breeding grounds..... and perhaps reduce breeding grounds for politicians as well!?

Melinda Janet wrote: "A fascinating review, especially about the pestilence overflowing from Haiti, and the part about the medical treatments of the day. Thank you!"

A thoughtful and interesting article on "What We Owe Haiti" is found at .
Evidently yellow fever was the primary cause of death among the French soldiers who were sent to Haiti to quell the uprising there. Some 24,000 French soldiers died in Haiti, mostly due to yellow fever. Because of those staggering losses, Napoleon gave up his idea of sending troops to New Orleans to get French holdings west of the Mississippi for France. You connect the dots.

I am now becoming more interested in the role that disease has in swaying the course of armies / navies and the like. On to the book on scurvy!

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