An American Plague Summary

An American Plague by Jim Murphy is a 2003 nonfiction book about the yellow fever epidemic that afflicted Philadelphia in 1793.

  • Dr. Benjamin Rush noticed a host of symptoms arising in several Philadelphians, including fever, yellowing of skin, and emission of bile. Rush notified the government of a plague.
  • As the epidemic took its course over several months, 4,000–5,000 victims died. Numerous citizens, physicians, and nurses worked together to care for the ill and distribute resources as needed.
  • In the century after the epidemic, several generations of scientists worked to uncover the origin of yellow fever, finally finding the Aedes aegypti mosquito responsible.


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Last Updated on June 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1286

Philadelphia in the summer of 1793 was a particularly hot and uncomfortable place to be. The sun had been relentless since May, and many cats were dropping dead. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed everywhere but especially near “sinks,” which were holes dug at street corners to help with waste runoff. There were no covered sewers.

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Over at Richard Denny’s boarding house on North Water Street, a French soldier (whose was not recorded) had become very ill with fevers and “violent” seizures. In only a few days, he lay dead. There were eight similar deaths in two separate houses within a week.

In another sickroom, Catherine LeMaigre lay dying. Her husband called two doctors: Dr. Hugh Hodge and Dr. John Foulke, both notable physicians. Both doctors did what they could for LeMaigre, but there was little solace they could offer. Hodge and Foulke decided it was time to call Dr. Benjamin Rush, a figure of great energy, talent, and drive.

Gradually, patterns of symptoms emerged. A patient would experience chills, headaches, and aches in the back, arms, and legs. Next came a high fever followed by constipation. Then after the fever finally broke, it would seem that the patient was recovering. Yet then the fever would begin anew, and the eyeballs and skin would turn yellow. Vomiting of dark, stale bile soon followed, and patients’ tongues would turn a dry brown. The patient would swiftly become depressed and confused. Lastly, tiny red spots would erupt on their skin.

Dr. Benjamin Rush had seen enough. He announced that Philadelphia was in the midst of a yellow fever plague. He informed the mayor and the governor of the danger at hand. Fear spread quickly, and the city emptied out.

Matthew Clarkson, mayor of Philadelphia, stayed in the city, even though yellow fever had already claimed his wife and son. Clarkson immediately convened the College of Physicians. This group, although sometimes in internal disagreement, made quite a few recommendations, such as putting a few drops of vinegar on a handkerchief and burning gunpowder to purify the air.

Within days, government of any kind ceased to be. The state legislators were scared and handed over power to the governor. The governor turned the entire problem over to Mayor Clarkson. Clarkson called a meeting of the “Overseers and Guardians of the Poor.” Neither the mayor nor these guardians had a legal right to commandeer the vacant Bush Hill mansion and turn it into a makeshift hospital, but they did so anyway.

By September 10 of 1793, George and Martha Washington were headed south to Mt. Vernon. By leaving Philadelphia, Washington sparked a Constitutional crisis. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that Congress should be convened only in Philadelphia, but many wondered how the business of the government could be done in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic.

Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote to the city’s Free African Society for help. Though members of this group had many valid reasons to not want to help their white neighbors, they did so willingly with great generosity of spirit. Two of the group’s elders, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, directed...

(The entire section contains 1286 words.)

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