Apr 3, 2020 in Sociology
The American Plague: A Review

This essay focuses on the book written by Molly Caldwell Crosby in 2006, The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow fever the Epidemic that Shaped our History. The first part of the essay examines the major argument and summarizes the main ideas. After, the essay concentrates on the strengths and weaknesses of the book. It explains how the social and cultural factors influenced the spread of Yellow fever in Memphis in 1878. The last part demonstrates the global perspective of the disease, including the discovery of the vaccine, and outlines whether the author has covered this area well.

In the modern era, when scientists found cures, vaccines, and preventive methods for most of the diseases that bedevil humanity, tales about an illness that would sweep away an entire village in America seem unreal. However, epidemics were common in the recent past. In the face of disease outbreaks, physicians had no idea how to deal with them and to prevent the deaths of hundreds or even thousands of people. In the US history, Yellow fever is regarded as one of the great tragedies that caused serious casualties. The story has been documented by Crosby in The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow fever the Epidemic that shaped our History. The essay focuses on the main ideas and arguments the author discusses in the book.

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Part 1

Central Thesis and Summary of the Book

The main statement of the books is that Yellow fever became an epidemic because of the ignorance of the people and physicians. This book is akin to a medical history, combining the history of the illness and the social effects it had on people. The author presents the story of the citizens and physicians who spent their time trying to combat it.

In the “American Plague,” Crosby traces the Yellow fever epidemic. The disease is not common in the consciousness of most Americans. However, more than a century ago, it was a menace to the American population (Crosby, 2006). Describing its symptoms, Crosby (2006) notes that it starts as a piercing headache and cause an extreme sensitivity to light. At this stage, the patients refuse to admit that they are experiencing the initial symptoms of Yellow fever (Crosby, 2006). After, the pain grows stronger. The temperature rises, followed by kidney failure. However, the most horrifying stage is when a person starts vomiting blood so dark that it looks black and his tongue becomes purple due to internal hemorrhaging. Eventually, Crosby (2006) explains that the skin turns into "deep gold" while the white of the eye finally becomes "brilliant yellow." 

After the introduction, the book shifts to the epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1878. According to Crosby (2006), the “city collapsed” with its population and revenue. The sustainability dropped substantially. During three months from July to September, the city lost more than fifty percent of its population. Moreover, out of nineteen thousand individuals who remained in the city, more than seventeen thousand citizens had Yellow fever (Crosby, 2006). People of different age, profession, and statuses were suffering from the disease.

Our Process

After, the author portrays a more hopeful image. Amidst of that tragedy, an army doctor, Dr. Walter Reed, was trying to find the real cause of Yellow fever (Crosby, 2006). In fact, the US government dispatched him to Cuba to research on the causes of the menace (Crosby, 2006). Nowadays, it would seem unethical because they used human beings as the subjects for the experiments trying to confirm that mosquitoes, not germs, were the vectors of the disease.

The last part of the book examines Reed’s efforts to defeat the disease. In addition, Crosby (2006) highlights the development of a vaccine. However, he (2006) also admits that in some places, the vaccine against Yellow fever is either unavailable or disregarded by people. Consequently, about thirty thousand individuals in the developing world continue to die from the plague each year (Crosby, 2006). Accordingly, this means that some parts of the world are still at risk of Yellow fever epidemic.

How the Book Helps One Understand the History of Yellow Fever

Crosby wrote the book in the thematic timelines. Thus, it is apparent to the audience how the Yellow fever appeared in the American shores and Memphis. The author traces the epidemic from Western Africa to America. He also includes the history of the search for the cure. The themes are organized efficiently to make it easier to comprehend the history of Yellow fever.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Book

For a book that documents a history, it is remarkably short and precise. Secondly, the author uses simple everyday terms that most people will be able to understand. Consequently, the casual reader can finish it quickly. Despite its simplicity, the book is also well-researched and detailed enough for the academics.

However, the book has its weaknesses. First, its primary focus is on Memphis, the author’s hometown, at the expense of other details. Moreover, the book appears to be a series of mini-biographies of various characters rather than a flowing narrative about the disease. Finally, the last section, which documents more than one hundred years of modern day history of the disease, is only 25 pages. It makes the research less detailed.

Part II

Social and Cultural Determinants That Influenced How Yellow Fever Behaved

Several socio-cultural determinants influenced the behavior of Yellow fever. What impacted the outbreak most is an extremely poor sanitation condition of the city, including sewages and stagnant water that made the perfect ground for the breeding of mosquitoes (Crosby, 2006). The trade from the coastal towns to Memphis also contributed to the spread of Yellow fever and its virulence as infected people from those areas arrived in the city (Crosby, 2006). The majority of the population was religious fundamentalists. Thus, some perceived the issue as a punishment from a deity which made the spread more dangerous as they failed to seek medical attention in time (Crosby, 2006). Besides, the frequent interaction of people during the Carnival encouraged the rapid spread of the disease.

Our Benefits

Global Perspective

Indeed, the disease was a menace not only to Memphis but also to other US cities. According to Norrby (2007), Yellow fever also affected the Caribbean and South American nations. In those places, people suffered tremendously from the uncontrolled outbreak of the disease.

Trying to combat the disease, the government funded the Yellow Fever Commission. The members of that commission were sent to Cuba in order to isolate the vector of the disease – mosquitoes. They had to identify if the disease was viral or bacterial. The Yellow Fever Commission proved that the disease could pass through bacteria filters. Later, researchers from the Rockefeller Foundation confirmed that fact through the “animal method" explaining that the disease could spread from human beings to monkeys (Norrby, 2007). Dr. Max Theiler developed the attenuated virus based on that knowledge. As a result, it became the vaccine for Yellow fever (Norrby, 2007). Theiler received the Nobel Prize for finding the way how to combat Yellow fever. However, the author neglects that part of the story as she focuses mainly on the story of Memphis.

Conclusion

This essay is a review of Crosby’s The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow fever the Epidemic that Shaped our History. The book argues that Yellow fever afflicted American cities because the citizens and physician were ignorant of its causes. The book documents the Yellow fever epidemic in the US. Especially, it is dedicated to the outbreak of 1898. However, the author describes Memphis and its history and thus giving other aspects of the book little attention. Even though it documents the history, the book is short. It has simple language and is well-researched. The social and cultural practices that made the disease spread quickly include the fact that the city was dirty. Religious fundamentalism of its people and the trade and carnival also impacted the condition. However, the scientists managed to develop the attained virus for Yellow fever and combat the disease.

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