In this account, a journalist traces the course of yellow fever, stopping in 1878 Memphis to "vividly [evoke] the Faulkner-meets-'Dawn of the Dead' horrors,"*-and moving on to today's strain of the killer virus.
Over the course of history, yellow fever has paralyzed governments, halted commerce, quarantined cities, moved the U.S. capital, and altered the outcome of wars. During a single summer in Memphis alone, it cost more lives than the Chicago fire, the San Francisco earthquake, and the Johnstown flood combined.
In 1900, the U.S. sent three doctors to Cuba to discover how yellow fever was spread. There, they launched one of history's most controversial human studies. Compelling and terrifying, The American Plague depicts the story of yellow fever and its reign in this country-and in Africa, where even today it strikes thousands every year. With "arresting tales of heroism,"** it is a story as much about the nature of human beings as it is about the nature of disease.
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I am not from Memphis originally, and after moving here, I began hearing about the tragic yellow fever epidemic and its far reaching consequences. As a non-Memphian, I was struck by how few people outside of this region had ever heard of the epidemic, which was the greatest urban disaster of its time, with a death toll higher than the Chicago fire and San Francisco earthquake-- combined. That is what inspired me to tell this story. I wanted to take the reader into Memphis in 1878, into the city's problems and promise as summer approaches. While most U.S. cities in both the North and the South suffered through yellow fever outbreaks for two-hundred years, 1878 stands out as the worst--when Memphis became a "city of corpses"--and the last major yellow fever epidemic in the U.S. Out of the despair of that epidemic came action from the federal government to finally find the cause of these debilitating outbreaks. It was twenty years in the making, and it led to one of our greatest successes in medical history--Walter Reed's work in Cuba that finally proved mosquitoes, not "miasma" or filth, brought on a yellow fever season. In the end, his work led to later development of a vaccine--the same one still in use today. But, like the work of countless doctors and nurses in Memphis, it came at a great price. It has been said that no other disease killed so many of the doctors, nurses and scientists trying to study it. That is what struck me most when writing the book and still stays with me today--the many people, ordinary citizens and doctors alike, in Memphis, Cuba and elsewhere, who literally gave their lives in the fight against this disease.About the Author:
Molly Caldwell Crosby has previously worked for National Geographic magazine, and her writing has appeared in Newsweek, Health, and USA Today, among others.
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