What is the summary for An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Jim Murphy -- A Short Biography

Jim Murphy (1947- ) grew up in the late 1940s and early 1950s during a time in New Jersey, his home state, when children played in their neighborhoods without fear and when the world was seen as a safe place in which no one was bothered. It was this idyllic background that provided the springboard for his decision to launch a career in juvenile publishing after doing his undergraduate studies at Rutgers University and his postgraduate studies at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

After a successful career that took him to the position of Managing Editor, he changed directions in 1978 and devoted himself to his own writing, beginning with Weird and Wacky Inventions. Murphy has since published more than thirty-five books for young readers and has won several awards, including two Newbery Honor Books awards and three NCTE Orbis Pictus Awards. Murphy still lives in New Jersey with his wife Alison Blank and their two sons. Their house is also home to many pets and many, many books.

An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 -- A Summary

Jim Murphy starts recounting events relating to the yellow fever plague of 1793 by taking the reader to August in drought-stricken, heat-ridden Philadelphia. President Washington has just signed the 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality that kept the infant United States of America out of European conflict between France on one side and England, Australia, Spain and Holland on the other.

The good citizens of Philadelphia expressed their disagreement with Washington's actions by staging pro-French demonstrations of what Vice President John Adams called "French Madness." At the same time, physician Dr. Rush was nervous about "the series of illnesses that had struck his patients throughout the year ... 'There was something in the heat and drought,' the good doctor speculated, 'which was uncommon, in their influence upon the body.'" It was in this atmosphere of heat and political unrest that yellow fever struck, sending much of the populace, including George and Martha Washington, fleeing from Philadelphia, the new nation's temporary capital.

Earlier, in 1787, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, freed slaves, founded the Free African Society (FAS). Jones was a Methodist who was disheartened by the segregationism in the white Methodist church. Allen was an ordained Episcopalian minister. Religious points of view were combined in order to found the FAS, the first mutual aid society for blacks that was dedicated to moral, educational and financial advancement for blacks through funds allocated to individuals in the FAS membership who had unmet needs. The story of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic is in large part the story of the FAS.

In 1793, the medical community believed Africans to be immune to the ravages of yellow fever. Dr. Rush issued a public plea for the FAS to provide individuals to nurse and care for the sick and dying during the epidemic. His plea was critical since as many as could do so were fleeing the city. Many in the Society, as it was known, answered the call, including Jones and Allen, doing so with very little financial support outside what they could raise themselves through the Society.

After the epidemic subsided, the behavior of the nurses and aides who came from the black community was attacked by Mathew Carey, who claimed that those from the FAS charged high prices for their services, stole and generally acted in an immoral and criminal manner. Jones and Allen responded to Carey's attack by publishing their memoirs of events and a defense of the Society in A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People during the late awful calamity. Partly because of the drain on FAS finances caused by the help they provided during the terrible time of fever and partly because of the cost of publishing the defense of those who nursed the ill, many of whom contracted the fever and died themselves, the Society was swamped in debt and forced to fold.

The epidemic ended when cold weather returned to Philadelphia in October with the coming of autumn. The drought, which opened Murphy's recounting of the American plague, had increased the presence of mosquitoes, and mosquitoes were later found to be the carriers of yellow fever. Even later, it was learned that yellow fever originated with monkeys in the tropics. A vaccine was eventually developed for the fever. Although some do survive yellow fever, as did Allen, there is no cure for it.

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