in 1878, yellow fever struck Memphis, Tennessee, then a vibrant and booming town of about 5,000 souls. By the time it left, that autumn, at least one out of every five Memphians was dead, countless more debilitated by the fast-moving and rapidly shifting disease.
All told, more Memphians died in that one summer of yellow fever than the number of Americans who had been killed in Chicago’s Great Fire, San Francisco Great Earthquake, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s Great Flood COMBINED.
And then it was gone, and the reeling medical community had no more idea of where it had gone than of where it had come from. Memphis was far from the only place struck by yellow fever that year, but it was the largest single place and bore the most grievous injuries. Was yellow fever a bacterial sickness? Was it viral? Was it spread by poor sanitation? By contact? By air? No one knew, and the medical community, such as it was, was dying just as quickly as everyone else.
The weather cooled. Fall arrived, and Memphis was left to pick up the shattered pieces. Imagine a town in which one of every five citizens – men, women, children, rich, poor, black, white – one of five had died.
Molly Caldwell Crosby takes up the incredible story of the Memphis yellow fever epidemic in her newish book, “The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History.” Crosby is a deft and entertaining writer, wrapping statistical minutae inside fascinating human stories. And her book only begins with the Memphis epidemic.
From there, the story moves to Cuba and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Of the roughly 3,000 U.S. soldiers who died in that war in Cuba, only about 400 died of war-related injuries. The rest were victims of disease, including malaria and, especially, yellow fever.
About two-thirds of Crosby’s book focuses on the amazingly dedicated work of U.S. Army doctors, led by Major Walter Reed, to try and find the cause of yellow fever. This, while continuing to treat all the men (and some women) who succumbed to the disease.
Crosby tells the story tightly and with enough interest that it kept me up late for several nights trying to finish it. If you enjoy a good piece of popular history that reads as fascinatingly as any thriller, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
“Asleep,” Crosby’s second recent nonfiction book, doesn’t quite live up to the promise of “The American Plague.” The subject matter is interesting enough – the recurrent outbreaks throughout history of encephalitis lethargica, the “sleeping sickness” that sometimes seems to parallel flu outbreaks.
Unfortunately, although the topic is fascinating, the way the information is communicated leaves something to be desired. Where “The American Plague” was tight, fast and engaging, “Asleep” is loosely jointed, surprisingly slow-moving, and easy to lose interest in. Which really irritated me, because I was completely looking forward to this book. Oh well.
So, in short:
“The American Plague” by Molly Caldwell Crosby. A++ Would read again. Highly recommended.
*Asleep” by Molly Caldwell Crosby. C+ Probably won’t read again.