Wednesday, June 9, 2004

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

Murphy, Jim. 2003. AN AMERICAN PLAGUE: THE TRUE AND TERRIFYING STORY OF THE YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC OF 1793. New York: Clarion Books. ISBN 0395776082 [Suggested Grade Levels 6 and up]

Murphy’s account shares his research of the yellow fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia in 1793. The book focuses on how the epidemic sent the city into chaos when people began evacuating in droves, leaving the city without government, goods, or services. Attention is also given to the efforts made by physicians as well as the Free African Society to cure and care for the sick and dying.

Murphy’s extensively researched account of the events in Philadelphia in 1793 is told in this powerful and dramatic narrative. The strengths of the work are many; as in his previous work, Murphy meticulously researches the events of the epidemic and turns to primary source documents as his chief sources. His selection of archival images for the book is important to note because they help bring the story to life. His selections include facsimiles of Philadelphia newspapers which included daily lists of the dead and public announcements which appeared in the papers as well. Black and white illustrations of important individuals are also included as well as scenes of the plague’s devastation. Another strength of Murphy’s account is its readability; the narrative quality allows readers to be drawn into the story easily, as he recreates the fear and panic felt by those living in and around the infected city. The story is told in chronological order, and he begins with the events of the hot summer that led up to the outbreak and focuses on how the medical community struggled to identify the disease, its cause, and the battle to find a cure. No detail is missed, and he offers a further readings list as well as an extensive annotated biography.


Readers researching epidemics could compare the effects of the yellow fever epidemic with other large scale outbreaks. After completing the research, they could create a visual documentation of what they learned by utilizing Power Point.

Teens could read Laurie Halse Anderson’s FEVER, 1793, to compare the fictional account of the epidemic with Murphy’s text. They could then write a composition comparing and contrasting the two books, making sure to formalize an argument about which book they felt was better and why.


Other books about the epidemics:
Anderson, Laurie Halse. FEVER, 1793. ISBN 0689838581
Ward, Brian. EPIDEMIC. ISBN 0789469898

By Rose Brock

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