The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History - Molly Caldwell Crosby (2006)

Author’s Note

This is a work of nonfiction: Any italicized or quoted statements are taken directly from letters, diaries, articles, books, or actual dialogue. The greatest challenge in writing this book was that the people involved, though truly heroic, were not famous. Even Walter Reed, best known of all the principal characters, has only a handful of biographies to his name, most of which are out of print. To write this story, I relied heavily on personal letters and diaries for character development; the rest was filled in with historical information from the time period and newspaper clippings. In Memphis, I pored through old photographs, newspapers and family papers to re-create the city in 1878. I visited numerous libraries for historical collections pertaining to this story, including the New York Academy of Medicine, which now houses Jesse Lazear’s original logbook—it was lost for fifty years before someone found it in a trash can and retrieved it. And I traveled to Havana, Cuba, to visit and photograph the original site of Walter Reed’s yellow fever experiments.

I am greatly indebted to Philip S. Hench, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, whose personal hobby was acquiring and interpreting massive amounts of information on Walter Reed and his Yellow Fever Commission for a book. Hench died before he was able to write that book, and his collection is now held at the University of Virginia; mine is but one of many other books that have sprouted from his years of research and insight.

The scope of this disease and its effect on this country is vast. It was a plague intrinsically tied to the worst and best in humanity, brought on by the mistreatment of others and conquered only by self less sacrifice. In this book, I hoped to give a poignant portrayal of yellow fever by narrowing the focus to one town, a Southern city that would rise from the ashes, and a handful of doctors, one of whom would rise in the ranks of our country’s history. Yet their stories are the stories of dozens of other places and thousands of other people.

Nothing is an accident. Fever grows in the secret places of our hearts, planted there when one of us decided to sell one of us to another.