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'The American Plague' follows the story of yellow fever

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The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby


This book is a study of yellow fever and how what had once been a feared disease came to be understood and controlled in the first half of the 20th century.

Author Molly Caldwell Crosby, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, opens with an account of a child being found just barely alive among her dead relatives by a servant during an 1878 yellow fever epidemic in that same city. Someone had stopped to rob the father of the family, choking him and leaving him and everyone else for dead. Once the child survived, she was immune. She would later be known as Lena Angevine Warner and would go on to pursue a career in nursing and work under Walter Reed late in 19th and early in the 20th centuries in Cuba as he and other doctors investigated how yellow fever is transmitted.

The bulk of the book is taken up with what is known as the Havana Commission, but Crosby also spends time at the beginning of the book discussing the 1878 Memphis yellow fever epidemic so the reader understands how truly devastating the disease was, not only to its victims but to society at large. Before news of the epidemic spread, Crosby states that the population of Memphis was 47,000. When the presence of the yellow fever became known, people fled. “By September,” she writes, “19,000 remained and 17,000 of them had yellow fever.”

It was not then known that the disease is spread by infected mosquitoes and not directly by sick people. It would take the Havana Commission, more deaths, including those of doctors and nurses, and some procedural practices that would be forbidden today to figure out its means of transmission. A vaccine would be developed still later.

The last part of the book addresses the threat yellow fever poses today. In temperate areas, it has vanished with the only remaining concern being for travel to some parts of tropical areas of Africa and South America. It is most often contracted, for example, by young men who go into the forest to work. According to the CDC1, there is no specific treatment, only management of symptoms.

Crosby writes with a tendency to fictionalize scenes, painting lush pictures of post-Civil War Memphis and creating a Cuba that would be a tropical paradise, were it not for yellow fever. This practice might raise the eyebrows of the strict historian, but these passages are enjoyable to read. For example:

“The moon had been brush-marked with clouds all night, and by early morning, as Dean’s fever climbed, red light rose like embers off the ocean water. The tropical storm that had been shelling the island with rain all week was making its way out of Cuba and heading toward the Gulf of Mexico with much more energy and intensity than it had previously shown.” (p. 188)

Her sources are described in the back rather than in footnotes.

This is an interesting if imperfect book and easily recommended to anyone interested in the topic.

1 CDC on yellow fever: