The Plagues Are Flying

Mosquito: A Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe

by Andrew Spielman and Michael D’Antonio
Hyperion, 247 pp., $22.95

No other disease—indeed, no other force of nature—did more to shape the evolution of American life than yellow fever. HIV-AIDS may, in a century or so, come to be regarded as an equal influence. But it was yellow fever that set the modern rules of engagement—emotional, political, scientific, and medical—in confrontations between disease and humankind. As is often the way with pathologies suppressed and illnesses prevented, the threat that yellow fever posed to society is now largely and happily forgotten. The apparent victory over a temporarily prevalent mosquito is part of the gilt-edged human history of the New World. Such are the repressions of memory, the distractions of the present.

The inquisitive reader is therefore forced to rely on primary sources to recover the sense of terror brought about by yellow fever in nineteenth-century proto-urban America. One example: Elizabeth Drinker, a Philadelphia Quaker born in 1734. She wrote a diary until six days before she died on November 24, 1807. Her chronicle of domestic living provides grisly insight into the drama of yellow fever in America’s then most significant city.

The fever first struck Philadelphia in 1699. In September 1762, Drinker noted its comeback: “A Sickley time at Philada. many Persons are taken down, with Something very like the Yallow-Feaver.” During the frequent epidemics of the 1790s, she called part of her diary the “Book of Mortality.” In 1793, for instance, she described “an unusual number of funerals,” the escape of families as the “fever prevails in the City,” and the burning of tar in the streets to ward off disease. Five thousand people died during that single outbreak, 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population. Drinker recounts stories of harrowing tragedy:

…G Hesser told a sad story, of Robt. Ross Broker that he died in the night of the Yallow fever, no Body with him but his wife who was taken in labour while he was dying, she opend the window and call’d for help, but obtain’d none, in the morning some one went in to see how they fair’d, found the man and his wife both dead, and a new born infant alive….

The number of dead exceeded all expectations. In September 1793, Drinker reported:

…it is said that many are bury’d after night, and taken in carts to their graves…. we have also heard to day that the dead are put in their Coffins just as they die without changing their cloths or laying out, are buried in an hour or two after their disease…. Coffins were keept ready made in piles.

The marks of these epidemics have been erased from the city’s public exterior. When I was there recently the only visible memorial—pointed out to me by an elderly man sitting beneath the Bicentennial Bell—was a U-shaped depression in the ground beside Carpenters’ Hall. An old sewer. And this for an epidemic about which, during fierce public petitioning for George Washington to declare war …

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