Historical Perspectives On Contemporary Issues

Sickness and the City

A forum held at the New York Academy of Medicine on October 24, 2018, and continued online here.


Many social, economic, and political factors affect urban health on local, regional and global scales. Examples from near and far, past and present, abound. In the 18th century, yellow fever coursed from city to city across the world as merchant shipping helped spread the disease. As cities incubated the disease, social relations among urban communities were reconfigured. In modern times, increasing urbanism—the unintended effect of agricultural policies compounded by political instability and social prejudice—led to outbreaks of disease. The entrenchment of Chagas disease—a debilitating and sometime fatal infection—made the city of Arequipa, Peru, a microcosm for the way cities shape disease, and a model for the recent bedbug outbreak in New York City.
Join American historian Billy Smith, and epidemiologist Michael Levy, for a conversation that uses both science and history to understand the intersection of urban development and the spread of contagions.
We invite you to watch the video or listen to audio of the event, read the expert commentary, browse relevant resources from across the Consortium, and join the discussion here. If you are not already a registered member of our web site, please create an account before participating in the discussion.
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Michael Z. Levy University of Pennsylvania

Michael Z. Levy is Associate Professor in the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology & Informatics and a Fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He works at the interface of epidemiology, ecology and statistics to understand and control vector-borne and other infectious diseases. For the past 13 years he has focused his research on the control of urban Chagas disease transmission in Peru.

Billy G. Smith Montana State University

Billy G. Smith is Distinguished Professor of Letters and Science in the History Department of Montana State University, where he has won every major teaching and research award offered. He is the author or editor of eight books and dozens of articles. He lives in Bozeman, MT.

Yellow Fever in the 21st Century
Julia Mansfield

Yale University

Julia Mansfield is the Cassius M. Clay Postdoctoral Associate in History at Yale University.  She holds a B.A. from Harvard College and a Ph.D. from Stanford University.  From 2014-17, she was a Fellow-in-Residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, and she held a Dissertation Writing Fellowship in 2013-14. She is currently writing a book on the history of yellow fever in the United States.

In December 2015, yellow fever emerged in Angola.  The outbreak alarmed global health experts, who worried that yellow fever might travel across sub-Saharan Africa and even spread beyond the continent.  The World Health Organization (WHO) monitored the outbreak closely for six months until it faded away.  While the outbreak did not produce an international crisis, it galvanized global health experts to step up their efforts to control yellow fever in Africa, and the WHO is now poised to launch its most ambitious campaign yet against the disease.

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Sickness and the State
Kathryn Olivarius

Stanford University

Kathryn Olivarius is a historian of nineteenth-century America, interested primarily in the antebellum South, Greater Caribbean, slavery, and disease. Her research seeks to understand how epidemic yellow fever disrupted Deep Southern society.

In describing how disease shaped Atlantic empires in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, historian J. R. McNeill wrote, it is “perhaps a rude blow to the amour proper of our species to think that lowly mosquitoes and mindless viruses can shape our international affairs. But they can.”[1] In their presentations for the recent symposium Sickness and the City, Montana State University historian Billy Smith and University of Pennsylvania epidemiologist Michael Levy suggest these words echo across the ages.

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Insights from the Collections

The Consortium’s collections provide many opportunities to learn more about the history of epidemics. 
Our cross-institutional search tool allows researchers to investigate materials across multiple institutions from a single interface. With more than 4.4 million catalog records of rare books and manuscripts, the Consortium’s search hub offers scholars and the public the ability to identify and locate relevant materials.
Search the Consortium search hub.
Some archival materials related to this topic include:
Yellow fever vaccine boxes, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Thoughts on the subject of a health-establishment for the city of Philadelphia, College of Physicians of Philadelphia
Benjamin Rush letter to Samuel Meredith, Philadelphia, Pa., 1801, Huntington Library
Select pamphlets respecting the yellow fever (1799), New York Academy of Medicine
Chagas Disease: Proceedings, Pan American Health Organization (1977), New York Academy of Medicine
Fever: an elegiac poem dedicated to the citizens of Philadelphia, by a citizen (1799), University of Toronto Libraries
John C. Bugher Papers, Rockefeller Archive Center
Baruch S. Blumberg Papers, American Philosophical Society Library
Related publications from our speakers:
Ship of Death: The Voyage that Changed the Atlantic World, by Billy G. Smith; Yale, 2013.
Mapping Ethnicity in Early National Philadelphia
A Melancholy Scene of Devastation: The Public Response to the 1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever Epidemic, edited by J. Worth Estes and Billy G. Smith; Science History, 2013.
Integrating Evidence, Models and Maps to Enhance Chagas Disease Vector Surveillance
Bed Bugs (Cimex lectularius) as Vectors of Trypanosoma Cruzi
Urbanization, Land Tenure Security, and Vector-borne Chagas Disease
The Effects of City Streets on an Urban Disease Vector
See also recent work from our fellows:
Epidemic Preparedness in the Age of Chronic Illness: Public Health and Welfare Politics in the United States, 1965-2000, George Aumoithe
Unspeakable Loss, Distempered Awakenings: North America's Invisible Throat Distemper Epidemic of 1735-1765, Nicholas Bonneau