The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby

American Plague bookcover

Recommended by Doug Braudaway

This story is about a virus, a particularly nasty virus, and something that none of the people featured in the text ever saw or even figured out exactly what it is or how it killed.

There are two main portions of the book. The first is about Memphis in 1878, a disaster the author writes was worse than the Chicago fire, Jonestown flood, and San Francisco earthquake combined. The story is dramatic and, yet, possibly forgotten (outside of community history and cemetery records) even though more than a third of the city population’s population died in weeks: "Memphis was a city of corpses."

The other story is about Walter Reed and his colleagues who, at the turn of the last century, investigated the dreaded “yellow jack.” The author reminds us that in the old days more soldiers died of disease than battle-damage; an estimated two-thirds of the American Civil War casualties were not caused by bullets. During the Spanish-American War, about 400 American soldiers died from combat while some 2,500 died of yellow fever and other tropical disease.

There are several other stories mentioned in the course of this narrative, references that could lead readers to other books. This book also has interesting phrases such as “evidence-based medicine,” “a mysterious horror,” “self-experimentation,” and “informed consent.” Apparently, informed consent was first used by Walter Reed and the Yellow Fever Board as they began their efforts to deliberately infect people in the effort to discover how the disease spreads. (Spoiler alert: There is a picture of a mosquito on the book’s cover.)

The subtitle is “The Untold Story Of Yellow fever, The Epidemic That Shaped Our History.” I think that subtitle overstates the importance of the disease—for two reasons. I would guess that smallpox, influenza, and cholera had greater impacts on the course of American history; the numbers of deaths seem to be far greater than what is described in this book. Secondly, about 207 of the 239 pages of the narrative focus on the two main stories; there is little text about other periods and areas of American history.

This book is not An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 by Jim Murphy. Maybe that book is something to read too.

All in all, The American Plague is worth reading.