An American Plague review

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy

Clarion Books, 2003. 978-0-395-77608-7

Synopsis: In the summer of 1793, the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a bustling metropolis with the distinction of being the capital of the newly formed United States of America. But in the streets roaming among the citizens is a killer – yellow fever. Its first few victims would not be anything out of the ordinary, but as the death tolls rose, the people will flee the city in fear. Its cause unidentified, its cure unknown, yellow fever would bring the city together and tear its citizens apart before the epidemic was over.

Why I picked it up: I’m a history nut with a particular curiosity for plagues.

Why I finished it: Murphy’s book is gross, horrifying, and fascinating in its details about life in the early years of the United States. What I found the most interesting was the discussion of the practice and theory of medicine in the late 18th Century, which seem oddly primitive considering the medical advances we have made since the 1790s. The epidemic was also surprisingly political – politicians were fleeing the city, but both doctors and politicians alike were debating causes, cures, and how to care for the sick. Murphy’s discussion of how the free blacks of Philadelphia played a role in aiding the city was unique, considering that literature written about the plague at the time all but excludes their contributions. The concluding chapters that tell about the city and the US in the years following the plague are equally interesting and informative, providing an interesting epilogue to the 1793 epidemic.

Other related materials: Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson; The Great Fire by Jim Murphy; Blizzard!: The Storm that Changed America by Jim Murphy; Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; Growing Up in Coal Country by Susan Campbel Bartoletti; Kids on Strike! by Susan Campbell Bartoletti


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