Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beth’s Books: Fever Season

Beth's BooksWhoops! I didn’t mean to let this many days go by without an entry, but I’ve been battling a cold as well as dealing with lots of wintry weather (piss off, Polar Vortex), so I’ve just been hunkering down and doing some reading.

Today I finished Fever Season by Jeannette Keith, a book about the 1878 yellow fever outbreak in Memphis (as of this posting, the book is only $1.99 for Kindle). Anyone who has been reading my blog for a while knows that I’m fascinated by how disease affects history, and this book didn’t disappoint. Some infectious disease books are about the hunt for the microbial culprit; this is more about the psychological and social effects on the city. (For the record, I like both types of books.) This doesn’t go into any lengthy scientific explanations of the virus or its epidemiology, so it would be easily understandable for a layperson.

Many aspects of dealing with an epidemic are addressed. Sanitation, quarantine, food and water supplies, care for the sick, burial of the dead...so many people were dying each day that individual graves and funerals simply weren’t possible, and mass graves had to be dug. In a Victorian society that placed great emphasis on proper burial and mourning, this was an additional psychological blow.

At the time of this epidemic, the cause of yellow fever and the way it was spread was not known. (It’s a virus spread by mosquitoes.) Much ado was made about proper sanitation and how filthy the city was at the time. Efforts at sanitation and a new sewer system after the outbreak didn’t address the cause of yellow fever, but it certainly would have an impact on general public health and helped to make Memphis an important southern city once again.

One thing I found especially fascinating was the social and racial aspects of post-Civil War Memphis. Black citizens and troops helped to maintain order and were credited with being a big part of keeping things together. Memphis was not a segregated city at this time, and black and white relief workers ate and worked side by side. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the Jim Crow laws came into being and segregation was instituted in Memphis. Histories of the epidemic written by whites eliminated the important role that blacks played in dealing with this outbreak. It was as though they wanted to deny reality. I guess some things never change! (I’m thinking of that Duck guy saying that he was around blacks when he was growing up, and they were happy and singing songs.)

The book throws in some fairly gory details of the disease (One tell-tale symptom is black vomit, or vomito negro, which consists of digested blood—yellow fever is a hemorrhagic virus, like Ebola. When that starts, the patient isn’t long for this world. One nurse wrote about how a patient’s bed looked like someone had tossed black ink all over it. That’s going to stick with me for a while.), but the main focus is the social and psychological devastation the epidemic brought to the city. It’s hard to imagine the impact that massive die-offs of family, friends, and neighbors would have, even today. Our epidemiology and quarantine capabilities are much better now, but an extremely virulent and transmissible agent would still be hard to contain.

Yellow fever, AKA Yellow Jack, still occurs in Africa and South America.


  1. ...there are a raft of similar stories of the kind of heretofore unheard racial cooperation in the South... and I can imagine that Memphis at that time would be really vulnerable for such an obreak... that they thought that it was the refuse that lay about the city was likely a key in tracking down the disease... but what would I know... I am not the microbiologist... YOU ARE..! :0)

  2. Sounds like a very interesting read, and I enjoyed your review of it. The racial aspect of it is especially interesting. I will have to check it out. Have you ever read "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York" by Deborah Blum? I may have asked you that before. It was published just a few years ago, maybe '10 or '11, can't remember. I have actually read it twice now. It is VERY interesting and well written, in my opinion, and I think you would like it. Blum is a science writer and she knows the subject AND how to write about it. She also won a Pulitzer for her series of articles called "The Monkey Wars." She's a very astute writer. "Sex on the Brain," her first book, is one you'd probably like too. Another scientific historical book that I like is "The Knife Man" by Wendy Moore, about the Georgian John Hunter who pioneered modern surgery.


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