The best books about yellow fever

Many authors have picked their favorite books about yellow fever and why they recommend each book.

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The American Plague

By Molly Caldwell Crosby,

Book cover of The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History

Yellow fever, like many feared diseases, conjures up an image of faraway, steamy rain forests. At one time, yellow fever really was found there. But the disease—and the mosquito that carries it—didn't stay there. I was surprised to learn how prominent and feared yellow fever was in early Colonial America and that it persisted in the United States through the early 20th Century. Crosby provides background on the disease from Africa, its path to the Americas, and routine epidemics in New Orleans, but the book's primary focus is the account of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 that decimated Memphis, Tennessee, and other towns along the Mississippi River.  I liked this book for filling in the blanks in my awareness and understanding of this American plague. 

Who am I?

I am not a historian. I am a retired entomologist with a love for history. My first real experience with history was as a child, reading about Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic adventure on the Endurance—a story I must have re-read 50 times. I have come to recognize that much of the history I learned growing up was either incomplete or was just plain wrong. I am drawn to the arcane aspects of historical events, or that illustrate history from a different angle—which is shown in my list of books. The Silken Thread tells about the history that occurred because of, or was impacted by, just five insects.

I wrote...

The Silken Thread: Five Insects and Their Impacts on Human History

By Robert N. Wiedenmann, J. Ray Fisher,

Book cover of The Silken Thread: Five Insects and Their Impacts on Human History

What is my book about?

The Silken Thread shows how five insects—just five—have impacted human history. This is not a science book; it is a history book. These five insects have caused sharp turns in history in ways that are usually ignored or unknown. Everyone knows about the plague, and that it was caused by rats and fleas. Except it wasn't that simple. They did not completely play the roles that we learned—or taught in our classes. And that is just one example. All five insects intersected with humans in multiple ways, and our telling of their tales reminds us that it really is the little things that run the world.

Galveston and the Civil War

By James M. Schmidt,

Book cover of Galveston and the Civil War: An Island City in the Maelstrom

Galveston was the largest city in Texas at the time of the Civil War and it had the distinction of being blockaded, occupied by both sides, and was the subject of many battles and skirmishes. This book explores some of the battles, but it is particularly valuable because of the stories it explores relating to the way that the war affected the citizens of an important Texas city. It explores topics like Unionists in Galveston, yellow fever epidemics, and the liberation of enslaved African Americans. By focusing on one city and its citizens’ experiences throughout the war this book tells an important and interesting story.

Who am I?

Ed Cotham, is the prize-winning author of numerous books and articles on Texas Civil War history. A frequent lecturer, with appearances on television and radio, Ed has probably given more tours of Texas Civil War battlefields than anyone. Ed has written the texts for many historic markers and has served as project historian for several important shipwrecks in Texas waters.

I wrote...

Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston

By Ed Cotham,

Book cover of Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston

What is my book about?

The Civil War history of Galveston is one of the last untold stories from America's bloodiest war, despite the fact that Galveston was a focal point of hostilities throughout the conflict. As other Southern ports fell to the Union, Galveston emerged as one of the Confederacy's only lifelines to the outside world. When the war ended in 1865, Galveston was the only major port still in Confederate hands.

In this beautifully written narrative history, Ed Cotham draws upon years of archival and on-site research, as well as rare historical photographs, drawings, and maps, to chronicle the Civil War years in Galveston. His story encompasses all the military engagements that took place in the city and on Galveston Bay, including the dramatic Battle of Galveston, in which Confederate forces retook the city on New Year's Day, 1863.

Mosquito Empires

By J.R. McNeill,

Book cover of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914

McNeill, William McNeill’s son, examines the intersection of disease, ecology, race, and international politics to show how infectious disease shaped the fortunes of colonial empires in the Caribbean. In the wake of the encounter between Europeans and the New World which destroyed up to 90 percent of the Amerindian population, European empires restructured the region into a colonial economy of sugar and slavery. Mosquitos bearing malaria and yellow fever flourished in this environment and McNeill shows how anyone seeking power in the region had to reckon with both them and disease.

Who am I?

Carol R. Byerly is a historian specializing in the history of military medicine. She has taught American history and the history of medicine history at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was a contract historian for the U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General, Office of History, and has also worked for the U.S. Congress and the American Red Cross. Byerly’s publications include Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I and Good Tuberculosis Men: The Army Medical Department’s Struggle with Tuberculosis. She is currently working on a biography of Army medical officer William C. Gorgas, (1854-1920), whose public health measures, including clearing yellow fever from Panama, enabled the United States to construct the canal across the Isthmus.

I wrote...

Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I

By Carol R. Byerly,

Book cover of Fever of War: The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army During World War I

What is my book about?

The startling impact of the 1918 influenza epidemic on the American army, its medical officers, and their profession, a story which has long been silenced. The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people in one year than the Great War killed in four, sickening at least one-quarter of the world's population. In Fever of War, Carol R. Byerly uncovers medical officers' memoirs and diaries, official reports, scientific articles, and other original sources, to tell a grave tale about the limits of modern medicine and warfare.

The Path Between the Seas

By David McCullough,

Book cover of The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

This is the story of the men and women who battled landslides, yellow fever, and rugged geography to fulfill the 400-year-old dream of carving a navigable passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The story of the Panama Canal is history that reads like a thriller, rife with political intrigue, technological innovation, medical breakthroughs, and the creation of a new country. It’s a brick of a book, and you won’t be able to put it down.

Who am I?

Ryan Murdock is Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost, Canada’s national travel magazine, and a weekly columnist for The Shift, an independent Maltese news portal. His feature articles have taken him across a remote stretch of Canada’s Northwest Territories on foot, into the Central Sahara in search of prehistoric rock art, and around Wales with a drug squad detective hunting for the real King Arthur.

I wrote...

Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America

By Ryan Murdock,

Book cover of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America

What is my book about?

Vagabond Dreams explores the process of psychological and emotional change experienced by the traveller, set against the backdrop of a solo journey through Central America. No trip has the same impact of that first time you set out alone on the road. It mirrors The Hero’s Journey, but without grand heroism. This is a personal mythology, revealed by the self-imposed hardships of the road.

Fever 1793

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Book cover of Fever 1793

When I first read Fever 1793—set in Philadelphia during a yellow fever epidemic—I thought it was a well-written and thought-provoking glimpse into how people would respond in a crisis. After re-reading it post-pandemic, I would now add “prophetic.” Mattie is a typical grumpy teen who would rather have fun than work in her family’s coffee house. But there is a deadly fever rapidly spreading through the city. Desperation unleashes her inner strength, allowing her to prevail over disease, fear, food shortages, unscrupulous thieves, and well-intentioned but poorly-managed medical science.

Who am I?

I’ve always loved learning about the past. Whenever we travel for vacation, my family has become resigned to making a stop at a historical site, especially for Colonial America. It was no surprise to them that I set parts of my first published novel (and series) in 18th century North Carolina. Each novel on my book list is set in a different century and features ordinary people who, when thrown into extraordinary circumstances, respond with strength, courage, and grace. These historical “fish-out-of-water” stories remind us how much people have changed across time—and how they’ve stayed the same. 

I wrote...

Whisper Falls

By Elizabeth Langston,

Book cover of Whisper Falls

What is my book about?

Whisper Falls tells the story of two teens who cross paths through a rift in time and build a “long-distance” friendship spanning two hundred years. When modern-day Mark grows alarmed by the brutal life Susanna leads in 1796, he uses technology to comb through history to discover—and perhaps alter—what the future holds for her.

Readers will be exposed to a group of people who have been oft-neglected in fiction and in history: indentured servants of post-colonial America. Woven with rich historical description, gripping mysteries, and vivid scenery, Whisper Falls will leave you enchanted and inspired by this tale of perseverance, courage, and love.

Another City

By Dell Upton,

Book cover of Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic

No one writes more compellingly about the multi-sensory experiences of living in America’s past environments than Dell Upton. His book Another City deals with the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century city—a century before the time period in my book—but he weaves together narratives of urban experience from America’s first decades as a republic to offer surprisingly contemporary commentary on city politics today. His chapter called “Smell of Danger,” to offer just one example, demonstrates that America’s urban elite mobilized their belief that disease was caused by “miasmas” rising up from foul-smelling waste to justify segregation along with class and racial lines. In the era of yellow fever and cholera, Upton argues that “the physical geography of disease became a human geography of fear.” 

Who am I?

When I was a kid I would cut out graph paper to design my ideal house. When I was in college, I walked into a class called American Material Life and had my eureka moment: “This is how I want to learn about people in the past!” I realized. I’ve been doing that ever since, first as a museum curator and now as a history professor. Houses, furnishings, and the way people interact with the built environment can reveal the complexity, diversity, and beauty of human lives.

I wrote...

Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan's Mining Frontier

By Sarah Fayen Scarlett,

Book cover of Company Suburbs: Architecture, Power, and the Transformation of Michigan's Mining Frontier

What is my book about?

In this book I contrast two types of neighborhoods that transformed Michigan’s mining frontier between 1875 and 1920: paternalistic company towns built for workers and elite suburbs for the region’s network of business leaders. I argue that mining company officers and their partners adapted techniques from both types of neighborhoods—often at the same time in the same places!—to manipulate social hierarchy.

My favorite chapters in the book compare the experiences of homeowners and their families—neighborhood “insiders”—with those of immigrant domestic workers who lived and worked among them as “outsiders.” While Victorian houses used the back doors, butler’s pantries, and maid’s chambers to keep domestic workers “in their places,” they actually provided them with unexpected opportunities to try on new identities.

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