The American Plague delves into America’s not-so-distant past to recount one of the greatest epidemics of our time.
"The virus attacks every organ, poisoning the body from the inside out. As the immune system fights back, temperatures run as high as 105, and the patient grows delirious. The body gives out. It hemorrhages, running red from the eyes, nose and mouth. Vomit, black with blood, roils. Then, the fever leaves its mark, tinting the skin and whites of the eyes a brilliant yellow, giving the virus its infamous name: Yellow fever."
The American Plague tells the story of the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee—one that would cost more lives than the Chicago fire, San Francisco earthquake and Johnstown flood combined—and, it is a narrative journey into Cuba and West Africa, where a handful of doctors would change medical history.
Yellow fever shaped the history of the United States. Slave ships brought the virus to the Western Hemisphere, and over the centuries, it would strike 500,000 Americans, killing 100,000. It attacked port towns and found its lifeblood in the Mississippi River. It touched states from Texas to Massachusetts, forcing the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to Washington and precipitating the Louisiana Purchase. It paralyzed governments, halted commerce, quarantined cities and altered the outcome of wars.
In 1900, the United States, fresh from its victory over Spain, sent three doctors led by Walter Reed to Cuba to discover how this disease was spread. Camped on sprawling farmland just outside of Havana, they launched one of history’s most controversial human studies. Two of the doctors would be infected; one would die. Two-dozen men—veterans of the Spanish-American War—would volunteer to be test subjects. But the virus would not be so easily conquered. It continued to kill the scientists attempting to control it, including several American physicians in West Africa, the virus’ birthplace, where even today, yellow fever strikes thousands of people every year and threatens to return to the United States.
Tragic and terrifying, The American Plague beautifully depicts the story of yellow fever, and its reign in this country. A story that, in the end, is as much about the nature of human beings as it is the nature of disease.
For updates on the status of yellow fever worldwide, visit the Centers for Disease Control site or the World Health Organization site. Click here for Yellow Fever Vaccination Clinics within the United States.
For an excellent site containing the story of Walter Reed's work in Cuba, as well as a number of the personal letters and reports from the Yellow Fever Commission, visit the University of Virginia's Philip S. Hench Collection website.