An American Plague: Yellow Fever Epidemic 1793 by Jim Murphy

Reviewed by Terry Dameika

Thanks to the “Tuesday Tea with a Twist? Program at the West Deptford Library, I found myself searching out “Historical Fiction?, the topic for the May discussion program.  I pulled that subject up on the library web and was drawn to the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia of 1793.   Since I grew up in Philadelphia, I thought it would be interesting to see how life had been in that day and if I could recognize any neighborhood areas.

The book was in the “Juvenile? section.  How difficult of a historical read could this be?  And, I’m not one to be adverse to some pictures in a book!  This one did include newspaper clippings and maps from 1793.  The book jacket stated “This powerful, dramatic account by award-winning author Jim Murphy (he’s written more than 25 books for young people) traces the devastating course of the epidemic?. 

Since Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, with George Washington as President, the author provided insight to the workings of the government and how changes were made due to the effect the epidemic had on the workings of the City.  I soon became absorbed in the medical beliefs and practices of the time and especially the conditions in the city.  I was drawn especially to the interesting newspaper clips at that time – I wondered why the letter “f? was used instead of “s? in old-fashioned spellings.  (In genuine old-style printing, it is not the letter f, but a long form of the letter s derived from handwriting styles, which looks very similar to f but does not have a complete crossbar.  It is not used at the ends of words, and in double s it is sometimes paired with a short s.  It fell out of fashion with printers later in the 1700’s.)

The spread of the disease and fear among the citizens had one immediate consequence – people began leaving the city.  Historians estimate as many as 20,000 people abandoned the city during the fever.  George Washington, his wife and 9 children went to Mt. Vernon.  When the epidemic continued, the President set a constitutional crisis in motion.  People felt that he could not legally convene Congress anywhere but within Philadelphia.  But, without Congress to pass laws and money, the working of the federal government would eventually come to a grinding halt. 

The Mayor and his family stayed as a symbolic gesture, although the Mayor held an honorary rather than active position.  The business of running Philadelphia was conducted by 12 city committee members with authority.  They would ultimately spend $37,647.19 to combat the sickness that infested their city.  The members of the committee could be held personally responsible for all this money because they had no legal authority to borrow or spend it.

I found it extraordinary that while the majority of them were not wealthy, they chose to take on the responsibility anyway.
And, the Committee got things done.  They ordered a new structure to be built to house the increase in patients – in 4 days, a house 60 ft. long and 18 ft. wide was erected, complete with 2 chimneys.  Another structure was quickly assembled to store empty coffins and serve as a morgue. 

The science of medicine at the end of the 18th century still relied a great deal on ancient myths and folk remedies.  Because of this, people did not automatically reject the opinion of someone simply because that person wasn’t a trained doctor. Remedies were used such as herb teas to break a fever, a glass of brandy to help a restless patient sleep or drops of poisonous substance (mercury) to induce vomiting.  Bloodletting was an ancient and still trusted medical practice.

The Free African Society, founded in 1787, was the first organization in America created “by blacks for blacks? to help members who were destitute and to provide care for widows and fatherless children.  These free black Philadelphians played a heroic role in saving their city.
Philadelphians believed there were problems in the water supply and, in 1799, Philadelphia had the first waterworks construction.  This was the first water system in the U.S. – the water was sweeter tasting and had no offensive odor, plus there was enough force to hose streets and docks and clean clogged sewers to alleviate the spread of the fever.

Yellow fever did strike again, 37 years later and throughout the 1800’s in major cities.  In 1848, Dr. Josiah Nott noticed that yellow fever receded after swamps were drained off to kiss mosquito infestations.  Twenty years later, Louis Pasteur isolated various bacteria, and in 1900 Walter Reed Hospital announced that “mosquitoes transmitted the disease? and even named the culprit, the female Aedes aegypti mosquite (the male species prefers plant nectar to blood).  The actual source of the yellow fever virus – tree-dwelling monkeys in Africa and American rain forests – was not identified until 1929 and a safe and effective vaccine was not developed until 1937.

Lesson learned: Don’t be adverse to books in the “Juvenile? section of the library…what’s not to like about “visuals?….read something on a topic you might not be drawn to.  Who knows, you might find it interesting, educational and a stretch.  Check out the many services our fine Library has to offer.

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