Book Review: Molly Caldwell Crosby’s The American Plague


November 13, 2013 by magpiemenina

Greetings all! Jaybird has been contemplating his first post deeply. It is coming, but not quite yet.

It’s been too long since I have done a book review. Have I been reading? Oh, yes.

I’m introducing a new format for my book reviews. You see, I write summaries and evaluations of all the non-fiction books I read. From here on out, I will be sharing some of those with you in that “raw” form.

Also, here’s some up-front information about me: I read a great deal about diseases, funerary practices, poverty, American history, and medieval history. I’m also interested in issues of diversity, among other topics. I’ve a formal academic background in anthropology and archaeology, English, and American Studies. I’m putting this out there because it’s only fair to know a bit about the person who is sharing books with you.

Most books I review will be nonfiction.

I’m not promising the books will be recent.

Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes.

Molly Caldwell Crosby. The American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic that Shaped Our History. New York: Berkley Books, 2006.


Crosby traces the history, in narrative nonfiction form, of yellow fever. She focuses primarily on three separate incidents: the yellow fever outbreak of 1878 in Memphis, TN; the experiments and vector discovery in Cuba by the Yellow Fever Commission headed by Dr. Walter Reed; and the discovery of a viable vaccine shortly before the outbreak of World War II.


Crosby’s book is, overall, admirable for a work of narrative nonfiction. The thoroughness with which she explains her sources in the bibliography at first leads to a sense that she did not research extensively, though closer examination reveals that her alluring writing creates that deceit through the easiness with which she discusses the materials. I particularly appreciated her front-loading of symptoms and etiology as opposed to the sad, failed-hook nature of many other casual disease chroniclers. It is further appreciated that the author was trained to write such books, rather than operating as a journalist, another, somewhat unfortunate, trend in nonfiction authorship.

The book has two major shortcomings. The first is a failure to clearly explain the laboratory tests conducted to discover the yellow fever vaccine, which are described in two different sections of the book. This is fairly major as 1) the explanation of methodology is the primary means of reconstructing experiments and thus strikes scientists as noticeably amiss when not included, and 2) it muddles the reader’s understanding of the process through which the vaccine was discovered. In striving to be concise, she has sacrificed the necessarily long-winded explanation of methodology and made these paragraphs impenetrable. Such a section could be recommended as a footnote in any future reprinting.

The second is the glossing over of the racial and geographical prejudices that the yellow fever epidemics encouraged. This is especially egregious given that she cites Disease and Distinctiveness in the American South, which readily highlights the issue. She touches on it, but insubstantially.

Overall, the book is pleasing and informative and captures the feeling of horror better than most books on disease. It is amusing to note, however, that the author of each disease book feels that they must argue that “their” disease is the worst. To each author’s mind, the disease in question is untouched by any other disease in amount of terror caused throughout human history, if not in terms of impact effected.


One thought on “Book Review: Molly Caldwell Crosby’s The American Plague

  1. gildedcrow says:

    I really appreciate your reviews. You have a interesting grasp on what is a good read. Thanks.

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