Over this past ISP, a group of dedicated students investigated the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia from an epidemiological, social and political perspective. Professor of Medical Humanities Tabea Cornel and Professor of Epidemiology Kristopher Fennie led the ISP with hopes to emphasize the importance of medical literature and history when trying to understand modern epidemics.
The work will be presented to the public along with the traveling exhibit by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) of the National Institutes of Health titled Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America. The poster exhibit will be available in the Jane Bancroft Library from March 2 to April 11. There will also be an opening reception on March 9 in the library and a creative writing competition about the exhibit open to students. Although the national exhibition includes only six posters, students will provide interactive events to educate the public about those whose contributions and aid during the epidemic were omitted from most historic accounts.
“It shows so concretely how socioeconomic status matters during an epidemic,” Cornel said. “How public health can become a measure of politics.”
In 1793, it was unknown that Yellow Fever was a flavivirus that was transmitted through mosquitoes. The virus earned the name Yellow Fever because the pathogenesis occurred in the liver and caused jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and eyes. Cities with harbors were more likely to be sites for outbreaks because still water is a perfect breeding ground for mosquito larvae. The panicked public tried to find the source of the unknown virus and were quick to accuse immigrants and the lower class of port cities.
Literature from the ISP suggested that the plantation owners fleeing Haiti during the Haition Revolution (1791 to 1804) may have brought the mosquitoes to Philadelphia and Charleston. By December 1793, the weather was too cold for the mosquitoes to survive and the epidemic ended.
Jane Markowitz (‘79), who works as a traveling exhibitions coordinator with the NLM, contacted Cornel about applying for New College to be a location for the traveling exhibition. The ISP group came up with ideas about how to spread the word about the National Library of Medicine to bolster their application.
One of the many interactive events offered will be a tutorial on how to navigate PubMed, a database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics.
Students also raised awareness of the free lesson plans for the local community created by NLM. They reached out to local high schools and historical organizations such as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASLAH). This partnership aligned well with the readings students did during the ISP, which placed importance on the racism that shapes both the historic and modern public health disparities.
Hodge was tasked with researching the sociocultural responses to the epidemics. Her findings chronicled the Founding Fathers and most of the Mayor’s Council of Philadelphia abandoning the city during the epidemic, as they were wealthy and could afford to leave. With most of the government bodies gone from the then capital of the United States, bureaucratic infrastructure fell through and the hospitals were overcrowded with sick and dying people.
“The only people who were working were the African-American nurses who were supported by Benjamin Rush saying, ‘You guys are immune to this,’—he was wrong,” Hodge explained. “They were going out into the streets and nursing these people mostly for free. They got covered up when the epidemic ended.”
Hodge mentioned that in teaching the stories that have been left out, one can start to rectify the injustice done to those that were almost forgotten. Fennie commented that public health students and professionals can use the past as a way to understand current, persisting inequalities and critically examining the things they might be doing wrong now.
Information about the exhibit, local events and links to the free lesson plans are available on the website https://rosegoddessmc.wixsite.com/ncfyellowfever/resources.
Information for this article was gathered from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/
All Yellow Fever events will take place in the Jane Bancroft Cook Library.
Opening Reception – March 9, 6:30 – 8pm
Yellow Fever on the Silver Screen – March 26, films start at 7:30pm
Yellow Fever Tea Time – April 7, 4:30 – 5:30pm
Game Night – April 7, starts at 7:30pm
PubMed Tutorial – April 9, starts at 11am