Faculty Advisor

Dr. David Schley


It was not the first time when New York was being hit by Yellow Fever in 1795. As early as 1668, the deadly disease was thought to be a punishment from God that the Governor at that time had to order a fast day.In 1793, the largest scale Yellow Fever epidemic struck the young United States’ capital, Philadelphia. The fever came in summer and faded when winter arrived. It was estimated that one-tenth of the population in Philadelphia had died and more than 17,000 had fled by November that year. Dr Benjamin Rush was a physician and a medical researcher in Philadelphia. He had persuaded the Free African Society, a religious black community, to voluntarily send helpers and nurses to help with taking care of patients who were mainly whites. He believed that the blacks had special immunity that can escape from Yellow Fever. Although he later said that he was being “mistaken” at the beginning, he still claimed that “the disease was lighter in them, than in white people.”

This belief continued when the epidemic spread to New York after two years. Despite the living proof shown in the combat of Yellow Fever two years ago, the whites, who were still dominating the city’s decision and opinions, claimed that the blacks can gain self-protection with their body’s speciality. However, the question is, were the blacks really having immunity to the fatal epidemic?

Rush also said in his self-written account that he did receive black Yellow Fever patients in his clinic in Philadelphia. While this scientifically unproven belief might have put the blacks in to risk, they were still encouraged to “help” with the nursing. The reasons behind the “construction” of this belief were that hospitals were facing shortage in human resources as many whites had fled, and the opinion leaders of the black community also wanted to make use of the chance to serve to achieve their religious and social goals. However, it is undeniable that the cause of Yellow Fever was still uncertain, which had made them clueless about the correct way of fighting the epidemic.

The “fantasy” of racial immunity did not bring anything good to the black community. They were even accused of not taking good care of their white patients and getting too high wages during the epidemic. Matthew Carey, a magazine publisher accused the African-Americans of working with “extorting high wages, or even stealing from those they nursed.” Also, the blacks were seen with unique immune abilities in other epidemic later on, for instance, malaria, which indeed had nowhere to gain immunity and again exposed the whole race into serious disease.


Department of History

Year of Award



2017 Honourable Mention

Document Type

Student Paper

Included in

History Commons