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The Secret of the Yellow Death by Suzanne Jurmain

March 10, 2011

cover of The Secret of the Yellow Death by Suzanne JurmainConfession: I started writing this review about a year ago, then it sat, incomplete, as a draft for months. I even wrote a booktalk for it in that time without finishing the review. But since Suzanne Jurmain’s The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing won the Middle Grade/Young Adult Non-Fiction Cybils Award last month, I figured I really should finish my review of the book.


When you think of terrifying diseases today, yellow fever probably doesn’t top your list. A lot of people have never even heard of it. But over a hundred years ago, yellow fever was pretty scary stuff. Between the mid-1600s and 1905, over 230 major yellow fever epidemics were recorded in the US. One of the most famous epidemics occured in Philadelphia in 1793, when nearly 10% of the population died of yellow fever and thousands of people fled the city in hopes of escaping sickness.

By the late 1800s, scientists were aware of bacteria and germs and were starting to make progress against diseases like cholera and typhoid. Not yellow fever. The symptoms of yellow fever had been recognized for centuries: fever, chills, intense headaches, muscle cramps, nausea, black vomit, jaundice. Yet no one knew what actually caused yellow fever.

Then in 1898, the United States went to war. By the end of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. was in command of Cuba and the government soon grew concerned about the possibility of a yellow fever epidemic sweeping through U.S. troops stationed there. Or worse, soldiers bringing the disease home with them. So in 1900, four Army doctors were sent to Cuba to determine what caused yellow fever. Led by Major Walter Reed, the doctors pursued the most popular theories that had been put forth to explain how yellow fever spread, sometimes risking their own lives in their quest.

While Jim Murphy’s An American Plague focuses on Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793, Jurmain’s focus here is on, as the subtitle of the book puts it, the “medical sleuthing” conducted. She is less concerned with epidemics than she is the doctors tasked with solving this mystery and their methodology—the investigations and experiments undertaken as part of their research.

Jurmain writes in a wonderfully descriptive style that sets the scenes beautifully (e.g., “The lab didn’t look like much. It was an old wooden shack at Camp Columbia, stuffed with wooden tables, shelves, jars, flasks, test tubes, a hot oven for sterilizing, an incubator to provide the warmth needed for growing bacteria, and a couple of microscopes.” [p. 17]) and introduces readers to the doctors in a manner that’s sympathetic and engaging. The historical context is explained simply and clearly, as are the medical and scientific information needed to understand yellow fever. Jurmain utilizes short chapters to convey information that, in a book with a wider scope, or for an older audience, could easily be told in one chapter. But by dividing her account into tightly focused chapters, she enhances the momentum of the narrative, making it seem fast paced and even more suspenseful.*

Additional information about some of the people introduced throughout the book is given in the appendix, though Jurmain emphasizes that information about Cuban doctors involved is scarce. A glossary, chapter notes, photo credits, bibliography, and index comprise the rest of the backmatter.

I also have to say that I really appreciated the design of the book. No sidebars or awkwardly placed inserts that interrupt the flow of the text, but many pictures that add both historical and scientific value.

Book source: public library.

* Why, yes, I have been studying the wisdom of M.T. Anderson. (I told you I started this review a while ago.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jasmine Gonyea permalink
    April 29, 2011 12:06 pm

    I bet its good. Can’t wait to read it.

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