I debated between a 3 and 4 rating for this book and in all fairness, I must tell you that one of my favorite non-fiction books is The Great Influenza by John Barry. The American Plague doesn’t meet that standard, but it is still worth reading. It’s quick and an easy read and the history is excellent. The science is where it falls short.
The book is divided into 4 sections. Part 1 is very short and primarily explains how the yellow fever virus gets to the western hemisphere. Part 2 tells the story of the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, TN, describing how it drastically changed the city. Part 3 takes you to Cuba in 1900 where experiments, led primarily by Walter Reed, prove that the mosquito Aedes aegypti transmits the disease. And Part 4 takes us back to Africa and the discovery that the disease is caused by a virus.
In parts 2 and 3, Crosby’s research is obviously excellent. She lays a foundation for understanding what Memphis was like before the epidemic and how it was changed. You get a sense of the fear that the words “yellow fever” created in the population, and her descriptions of the disease let you know why people were afraid. She also introduces us to people who might have been forgotten, but shouldn’t be because of the sacrifices they made for other people. She obviously cares about telling their stories.
Crosby’s telling of the story of Walter Reed and the others in Cuba is very similar. I was familiar with Walter Reed’s name of course, but couldn’t have told you why he was important, and that is a shame because he made a tremendous contribution to science. Yellow fever is a terrifying disease. But Reed wasn’t the only one responsible and she tells their stories also.
As I said the only area where I feel the book falls short is in the discussion of the science, primarily in Part 4. There were times where Crosby’s literary flourishes were annoying earlier in the book, but they were just out of place when discussing science. For example, “It seems only natural that a virus should fight for its own survival, and yellow fever had been hunting down and killing the scientists attempting to destroy it.” Or “The scientist becomes God and the virus his subject. The danger comes in the fact that a virus, ever mindful of evolution and its survival, has its own methods of defense. If man can manipulate the virus, the virus can manipulate man.” (emphasis mine) Personally, assigning human motivations to a virus bothers me.
There were also times when it seemed that she just wasn’t very comfortable with the science and rushed it. Writing about science for laypeople isn’t easy and Crosby missed the mark in my opinion. That being said I did enjoy the book and would recommend it especially if what you are looking for is a good history book about the impact of yellow fever on the United States.