Would This Kill Me in the 1800s: Yellow Fever

Yellow fever is one of those “old timey” diseases I’ve been aware of since I was a kid–not just because I read a lot of historical fiction as a kid, but also because I grew up in mosquito country.

But knowing it exists isn’t the same as knowing what it does. So what is yellow fever?

Spread by infected mosquitos, this viral disease causes (you guessed it) a fever. For most people, this is a short disease and improves in about five days. In some, however, the fever spikes and goes away, then comes back a day or two later. This second phase of the disease is the most dangerous. In addition to muscle aches and loss of appetite, yellow fever also attacks the liver, causing the skin to take on a yellowish hue as the body fails to flush out toxins. This may be accompanied by stomach cramps, as well as kidney damage.

Even today, it’s hard to diagnose in the early stages as it resembles so many other diseases (like the flu). However, it can be detected by a blood test and even prevented with a safe, effective vaccine.


Yellow fever isn’t native to North America, but rather was imported along with the slave trade (see? Kidnapping and selling people is BAD). It originated in Africa, where many people developed some level of immunity, though the virus continued to live in their bloodstream. When North American mosquitos bit the newly imported slaves, they took on the virus and then spread it to others already in the “New World.”

The first outbreak in the Americas was in Barbados in 1647, where it wiped out colonists and natives. The West Indies became known for Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases, many of them imported in exactly the same way–the slave trade. The irony of this is that as populations of plantation workers died off, it only fuel the demand for new slaves from Africa.

annoyed, witch, hocus pocus, bette midler, oh really, unamused, do tell Gif  For Fun – Businesses in USA
This is the face I’m making right now.

Fever fed political and economic battles in the area as France and England fought for control over the sugar trade. It didn’t end well for them as 2/3 of the French soldiers died, most from disease rather than injury.

From the West Indies, the disease spread both north and south, creating outbreaks in Chile, Cube and other South American countries, as well as Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee among others. In each case, there was little to no treatment available and up to 2/3 of the population perished.

Though the disease itself was well known, it wasn’t until the 1840s than the idea of it being connected to insects was put forward (previously, illness was thought to be caused by “bad air”), but this didn’t catch on until almost 1900. Beginning in the late 1800s, sanitation committees were formed to help reduce mosquito populations, though these were largely influenced more by the annoyance of mosquitos rather than any knowledge that they spread disease. In 1927 the virus was finally isolated, making it the first human virus to be identified.


Even today, there is no cure for yellow fever, though hospitalization is usually necessary. Anti-viral drugs are ineffective, and care is largely supportive, including pain killers and re-hydration. The best treatment is prevention, including vaccination, drainage systems, and removing any pools of standing water where mosquitos are prone to breeding. In the US, cases are extremely rare and usually limited to people who have traveled to Africa or South America.

So, would this kill you? Whether we’re talking 1821 or 2021, the answer is “probably,” though your chances are better today with early diagnosis and hospitalization. One improvement, though: unless you’re living in Brazil or Sub-saharan Africa, your chances of contracting the disease are extremely small.

Further reading:
Yellow Fever: 100 Years of Discovery
Yellow Fever timeline
1793 outbreak in Philadelphia
History of the Yellow Fever Vaccine
NPR timeline
List of major outbreaks in the US
Where did Yellow Fever Originate?

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