Segment from Contagion

High and Dry

Peter tells the story of the 1793 Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic in which the government high-tailed it for the hills, leaving citizens to fend for themselves against the disease.

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BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh here with your co-pilot, Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Brian.

BRIAN: The two of us are flying without our third co-host, Ed Ayers. He’s been down for the count with a nasty bug, and he’s not the only BackStory staffer sounding a little more frog-like this week. And as I look out from our studio, it seems to me that we’re at the peak of flu season. The reports have it that this year hasn’t been as bad as previous seasons.

In any case, we figured it would be a good time to dust off an old episode from our archives, in which we took on the history of contagious diseases. We were especially interested in the changing patterns of the government’s response to disease. And Peter Onuf here started us out with a story from the time when if I said germ theory, you’d probably think I was talking about a way to grow wheat. Here’s Peter.

PETER: It’s 1793, the dog days of summer, and we’re in Philadelphia. And I want you to get a picture of Philadelphia as a city, as 50,000 people, in those days the biggest city in the USA. And it’s the country’s capital, folks. It’s kind of smelly. It’s nasty, noisesome, unhealthy. And the people live so close together that when the disease comes, it comes on strong.

BRIAN: Yeah, what is the disease, Peter?

PETER: Well, people don’t know. I’m going to give you the description of poor Mrs. Parkinson, an Irish woman. She had severe head and back pains, great thirst, offensive stools, red spots on her face, blindness, sore throat, and hiccuping. And after all that, she died. But as she dies, she turns a particular hue of yellow.


PETER: Yellow fever, now you think, this is the nation’s capital. It’s where they got the best doctors, the most resources. They’re going to mobilize an effective response. But I got to tell you, 10% of the population– that would be 5,000 Philadelphians– die. And what does the government do? It leaves town.

ED: And if the people in the government had stayed, what could they have done?

PETER: Well, they would’ve died too. I think that’s the real problem here is that in early America, there is so much mystery about these epidemics. You don’t know where they come from. Many Americans would think it’s an act of God. It’s beyond our control. You’re being punished for something. It is a great mystery.

So how do you respond to an outbreak? We think now you’ve got to send in the National Guard, and you’ve got to get the government to do stuff. But in 1793, we just don’t have that kind of capacity. We barely had the capacity to make war on other nation-states and kill people. We certainly didn’t have the capacity to keep people alive.

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Not So Safe Space Listening Notes By Hayley Duncan, Middle School Social Studies Teacher, Lake Lure Classical Academy