A Melancholy Scene of Devastation: The Public Response to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic

A Melancholy Scene of Devastation: The Public Response to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic

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Estes, J. Worth, and Billy G. Smith, eds., 2013, xii + 212pp., Illus., paperback


In modern America, where the triumph over disease is often taken for granted and yellow fever has ceased to be a menace, it is difficult to appreciate the fear once engendered by this disease. The 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic was no mere round of sickness but a major public health emergency that paralyzed city functions, halted business and trade, and caused a breakdown in social institutions. The fever’s devastating effect on what was then our nation’s capital is apparent in the grim statistics it left in its wake: more than 17,00 people fled the city for safer environs, nearly 5,000 died, and hundreds of children were orphaned.

The essays in this volume, reflecting recent trends in cultural and social history and the history of medicine, enrich our understanding of the epidemic by investigating in greater detail the city’s response and the public’s reaction to the crisis. How Philadelphia’s various communities responded to the 1793 epidemic is instructive for today’s urban societies, increasingly forced to deal with contagions new (AIDS) and old (tuberculosis, venereal disease).

“ . . . Taken together, these essays both confirm much of John Harvey Powell’s Bring Out Your Dead and point to fruitful new interpretations.” —The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

“ . . . Although the US has suffered worse epidemics, the disruption of civic life and economy and the medical and public health response to this epidemic have turned it into a historical and historiographical case study par excellence . . . A most useful and readable book. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals.” —CHOICE

“ . . . a somber, but critically important work of American historical scholarship.” —Internet Bookwatch

“If Hollywood can make an enormously popular film of a disaster like the sinking of the Titanic, then it should snap up the rights to this story of tragedy, panic, and heroism in the face of death, wrapped up in a medical thriller . . . a worthy addition to the libraries of those who study the history of medicine and health communications (and perhaps even future film buffs).” –JAMA, 1998 (June 24)