Monday, September 04, 2006

J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead

Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philidelphia in 1793. You know, I've always been fascinated by plagues since my Sunday school days, when I pronounced the word like it's spelled and asked questions like: what kind of boils did the Egyptians get, anyway? So when I was assigned this book for my medical history class I jumped into it. Anyway, Powell alternates between a dry, factual tone and sensationalism, relying heavily on contemporary newspaper articles and correspondence. The background of the epidemic is fascinating, especially because in 1793 Philidelphia was the nation's capital, and therefore a political and social center. The small details included about civic life, commerce, newspapers, the Quaker church, and household routine are riveting.

Powell's "hero" or at least major protagonist, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is a problematic figure. There was a feud between medical practitioners about proper treatment for yellow fever victims - the "French method" consisting of wine, baths, and gentle purges against Dr. Rush's discovery of drastic bleeding and mercury purges. Rush was popularly regarded as a hero for his devotion, courage, and confidence in treatment; although some physicians at that time rightly regarded his treatments as dangerous. He gave great hope to his patients: telling them "You have nothing but a yellow fever," and did much to quell the panic in Philidelphia. However, it is amazing that his patients survived his "heroic" bloodlettings, because he and his contemporaries thought humans had twice their actual blood volume, and sometimes prescribed bleeding of more blood than the patient could actually contain. He was so enchanted by his theory, that "it never occurred to him that he might be wrong," even more, he considered physicians that did not follow his treatment guilty of murder.

Yellow fever is itself very interesting, a viral disease transmitted by a mosquito vector. Outbreaks continue in Africa, South and Central America, and the Caribbean. In non-immune populations outbreaks are very severe. There is now a vaccine, but there is still no cure, and only supportive treatment. It causes jaundice, bloody vomit, headaches, and seizures as well as fever.

(We also read excerpts from John Kelly's The Great Mortality about the black plague which was both infuriatingly and interestingly voiced, and as soon as I can rustle up a copy I'm going to read it and write about all of Kelly's mistakes.)

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