Sunday, June 20, 2010

Book Review -- The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History

This is a really interesting history book that tells the story of the great Memphis yellow fever epidemic of 1878 and the experiments and investigations that finally led to the discovery of how yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos in 1900.

The first part is a truly horrifying account of the 1878 Memphis epidemic. Yellow fever was a fairly common affliction in the American South in the 18th and 19th century, but on occasion a virulent strain would rage through a city, and the last and worst of these outbreaks killed more than 5,000 people in Memphis, Tennessee, then a city of about 40,000 people.

The descriptions of death by yellow fever are as horrifying as anything from the imagination of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, and at the description of Memphis at the height of the epidemic -- when the only people who remained were the diseased, the destitute, and a small number of nurses and doctors who risked their lives to treat the ill -- are a truly horrifying post-Apocalyptic vision.

The second half of the book focuses on the studies of the Yellow Fever Commission led by Walter Reed in Cuba in 1900. If you ever wondered why Walter Reed was famous, this is it. This section details the long struggle to discover how yellow fever was transmitted, a difficult task in an era when the concept of a virus was unknown and conventional wisdom scoffed at the notion that a mosquito could transmit disease. Smaller follow-ups detail the further progress against yellow fever in the 20th century, including the development of the vaccine that has protected millions against this horror.

The most striking aspects of this section are the tales of the scientists and volunteers who risked death by intentionally attempting to infect themselves with yellow fever as they worked tirelessly to find the disease's vector. It's truly amazing, heroic stuff. Just consider for a moment the nerve it takes to intentionally attempt to infect yourself with this horrible deadly disease because you are determined to discover its cause, so that this scourge can be defeated.

I suppose I could quibble with the book's generally narrow focus on those two places and times (Memphis, 1878; Cuba, 1900) since I was expecting a broader overview of the history of the disease and might've liked more detail from other times and places. But it's hard to beat this book for horror, heroism, and page-turning readability. And if you've ever wondered why the words "yellow fever" struck fear in the hearts of people for centuries in America, this book amply answers that question.

Folks with a week stomach may wish to skip the Memphis bits. They'll haunt you.

1 comment:

  1. Another one you're making me want to read! First I'll finish "Journey to Ixtlan" though by Carlos Castenada (neither sci-fi nor history...). I bought it at that great used book store we went to back when I visited Detroit last fall. It wasn't so bad, even if it wasn't summer!