Monday, April 05, 2010

Nonfiction Monday: Yellow Fever Edition

The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing Suzanne Jurmain

In the summer of 1900, Walter Reed (he of Walter Reed Army hospital, and a major street near my house) went to Cuba. There he met with a team of doctors to figure out what caused Yellow Fever. The disease had been ravaging areas every summer, killing thousands of people and sickening even more. While in Cuba, they had to disprove or prove the popular theories at the time. One theory that everyone thought was crazy was that it was spread by mosquitoes. Through many experiments, illnesses, and even a death, the doctors find some of their answers.

One of the most interesting aspects (to me) is that Reed refused to use human test subjects without their consent (a novel idea at the time!) Everyone had to sign a consent form and that the made in English and, for recent Spanish immigrants to Cuba, in Spanish.

Jurmain walks us through the ravages of yellow fever and the steps and experiments the doctors went through to prove that it is, indeed, spread by mosquito. This book is more about the search for a cause, rather than the disease itself. I liked the way Jurmain handled inconsistencies in the historical record, presenting all the versions out there and explaining which one she thought was correct and why, if she had an opinion. Excellent lay-out, really informative citation notes (with a lot of extra information, which is my favorite kind) an appendix with information on the human-test subject volunteers, glossary, and index.

Book provided by... my local library

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 Jim Murphy

In 1793, Philadelphia had a massive outbreak of Yellow Fever. Although record keeping wasn't great at the time, it's estimated that 5,000 people died between August and November of the disease. In this heavily-awarded* book, Murphy outlines the outbreak of the disease and the toll it had on the town.

We see how the disease spread, the controversy among physicians in how to treat it, and what the local, state, and federal government did to help and hinder the crisis.

I was most struck by the constitutional crisis it caused. The federal government was located in Philadelphia at the time, and George Washington and many other administration officials fled the town to avoid the illness. However, at the time, it was thought of as unconstitutional for Washington to convene Congress outside of Philadelphia, plus many of his papers with important information were still in town, making the federal government essentially shut down for several weeks.

The last chapter talks about other Yellow Fever outbreaks, as well as how the cause was found. Here, where the content overlaps with The Secret of the Yellow Death, the two books disagree, especially with Walter Reed's feelings on the mosquito theory and how Lazear contracted the disease. I am more inclined to agree with Jurmain's telling of the facts because she used mostly primary sources while, for this chapter** Murphy used secondary ones. Also, Jurmain's research focus was on this, while for Murphy it is essentially an epilogue to his main story.

I think the two books work very well together, especially if you add in Laurie Halse Anderson's wonderful historical fiction novel about the 1793 Philadelphia outbreak, Fever 1793.

*Newbery Honor, National Book Award Finalist, and Siebert Winner
**Murphy, of course, used mostly primary sources for most of this book, just not for this bit.

Book Provided by... my local library

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1 comment:

Dreamybee said...

These both sound really interesting! That is amazing that Walter Reed was so concerned with patient consent, given the time, as you said, but also given that he was (I believe) an army man himself. The military is not exactly known for it's "We'd like you to do this, but only if you want to" attitude!