Hoppe on Kotar and Gessler, 'Yellow Fever: A Worldwide History'

S. L. Kotar, J. E. Gessler
Kirk A. Hoppe

S. L. Kotar, J. E. Gessler. Yellow Fever: A Worldwide History. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2017. Illustrations, maps. 456 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7919-1

Reviewed by Kirk A. Hoppe (University of Illinois at Chicago) Published on H-Africa (November, 2020) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55351

This is a challenging book to categorize and describe. It is not an academic monograph or a coffee-table book. Perhaps it lies somewhere between popular history and a reference book. The majority of the thirty-four chapters are between five and fifteen pages long with numerous black-and-white reproductions of historical maps, statistics of cases and deaths, photographs, newspaper story headlines, and advertisements for yellow fever cures drawn from an impressive bibliography of five hundred newspapers and magazines. Many of these reproductions seem randomly placed. Chapter 24, “Falling Like Leaves,” which is about yellow fever epidemics in the 1870s, for example, includes a photograph of incoming passengers at the Miami airport in the 1950s having their temperatures taken (p. 290). Some of the historical disease broadsheets and cure advertisements are fascinating documents, but the authors provide little context or analysis.

This work is chronological and episodic. After a brief introduction, the first eight chapters and 100 pages cover the eighteenth century by decade. The next 150 pages cover the nineteenth century in a similar way. The chapters go wherever yellow fever outbreaks in that decade occurred but dwell primarily in the United States and northern Atlantic. While the overview is worldwide, relying on published primary sources in English limits the authors to histories of the US and western Europe and to when and where white men go in the Caribbean and Panama for commerce and plunder. Most chapters are about the US South and Eastern Seaboard: three chapters on the 1793 Philadelphia epidemic and six on nineteenth-century New Orleans.

The chapters move quickly from one location to the next. Chapter 22, “I am ‘Writing from the City of the Dead’: Yellow Fever around the World during the 1860s,” begins in the Caribbean; then moves to one page on Africa, half a page on Russia, and a page and a half on England; and concludes with four pages on international theories on cures and quarantines. The authors do not organize the material through any central arguments or theoretical lenses, nor do they give a sense of geographic relationships.  

Before discussing germ theory at the turn of the twentieth century and the identification of the mosquito vector, S. L. Kotar and J. E. Gessler present ongoing confusion, guess work, blame, panic, urban outmigrations by the wealthy (with interesting parallels to our current pandemic), fake cures, and ships in quarantine. Amid these topics, they also include some interesting historical conversations about whether or not yellow fever was contagious and whether quarantines were effective or legitimate. But the authors only touch on these episodically as they appear in a decade. The germ theory revolution is given scant attention in the final chapters of the text. A lone woman, Clara Maass, appears in chapter 30. Her death after experiments by Walter Reed on human volunteers in Cuba in 1901 led to outrage in the US and the end of that medical study. But this history begins and ends in one paragraph (p. 363). The authors do not discuss gender. They mention race and class episodically but not as topics of analysis.   

There is an odd concluding focus on the present-day threat of yellow fever as a biological weapon and a more reasonable concern with the Aedes aegypti mosquito moving north with global warming. There is also an odd contradiction in labeling this book as a worldwide study. Yellow fever is historically endemic in South America and tropical and subtropical Africa. The World Health Organization reports between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand yellow fever cases in Africa annually, with tens of thousands of deaths. But Kotar and Gessler give bare mention to histories of the disease in Africa and South America.

Yellow Fever: A Worldwide History is a chronological compendium, almost an index, of Anglo-European stories and sources. Many of these stories have been fully told and richly analyzed in both academic and popular histories from J. R. McNeill’s brilliant Mosquito Empires, Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010), Matthew Parker’s Panama Fever: The Epic Story of the Building of the Panama Canal (2008), Manuel Barcia’s The Yellow Demon of Fever: Fighting Disease in the Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Slave Trade (2020), John Pierce’s Yellow Jack: How Yellow Fever Ravaged America and Walter Reed Discovered Its Deadly Secrets (2005), and Renee Uzee’s Yellow Jack: New Orleans History Revisited The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853 (2019), to Laurie Anderson’s award-winning young adult fiction about Philadelphia, Fever 1793 (2002).

Citation: Kirk A. Hoppe. Review of Kotar, S. L.; Gessler, J. E., Yellow Fever: A Worldwide History. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55351

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.