Pandemics and Economics in History #12

More on Yellow Fever in 18th Century Philadelphia

Pandemics and Economics in History, Episode 12: More on Yellow Fever in 18th Century Philadelphia

In the previous podcast, we looked at some structural engineering efforts — especially the creation a municipal water system — as a response to outbreaks of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia at the close of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Century. This episode will introduce a bit more, but just a fraction, of some political and social issues surrounding those outbreaks.

Episode #11 included several quotations from Simon Finger, who writes and teaches about early American history and social history of medicine. To reiterate….

First, in his 2012 book, Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia, Finger begins by emphasizing that whatever happens during a crisis does not come out of nowhere but arises “from a deep pool of preexisting ideology and experience.”

Elsewhere, he notes patterns seen in the series of Yellow Fever outbreaks in Philadelphia. He writes:

“Each episode spurred similar patterns of evacuation, isolation, and scapegoating, and stoked the ongoing controversy within the medical community and motivated broader, though futile, efforts to ameliorate the effects of the disease” (Finger, “Yellow Fever,” Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia).

Let’s briefly explore one aspect of the pattern Finger mentions….

Free African Society vs. Matthew Carey etal.

In 1787, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, both preachers and leaders in Philadelphia’s Black community, helped organize the Free African Society. Among other functions and activities, the Free African Society served as a mutual aid network with a particular focus on helping the sick and providing for widows and orphans. Because the society was already functioning, and because prominent white leaders in the medical community believed that Black people were immune or less susceptible to Yellow Fever, the Free African Society was called on to serve in the outbreak of 1793.

There are many studies of the Free African Society’s history and its relationship to the Quaker community. Some of the foundational documents are still available, which allows for in-depth commentary on them. In addition, we can still read detailed published arguments between Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, on the one hand, and a white leader named Matthew Carey on the other.

Carey accused Black people of demanding exorbitant fees for nursing the afflicted and helping to bury the dead and of stealing from patients. He also complains as follows:

Many men of affluent fortunes, who have given daily employment and sustenance to hundreds, have been abandoned to the care of a negro, after their wives, children, friends, clerks, and servants had fled away, and left them to their fate.
— Carey, p.26

Allen and Jones responded with a detailed accounting of their own, including stories about difficulty of conditions and of securing supplies in the epidemic as well as the sad state in which some families left ailing Yellow Fever victims. The Free African Society leaders also complained about drunkenness and lack of care and compassion among white people who were supposed to be tending those in need.

In addition the leaders write:

We do assure the public that all the money we have received, for burying, and for coffins which we ourselves purchased and procured, has not defrayed the expense of wages which we had to pay to those whom we employed to assist us. — “A narrative of the proceedings of the Black people…” p.9

They add a statement of expenses, detailing how the Free African Society was actually out of pocket in their attempt to care for sick white people.

There is further back and forth between the dueling pamphleteers. More on this here.


With obvious over-simplification, we might summarize this set of events as follows

  • Black people establish a network of community care.
  • White people in power find themselves in need and call on the existing Black network for help.
  • White leaders continue to actively denigrate those who agree to help while also seeking to blame those same helpers for a variety of social ills far beyond their control.

This pattern might sound familiar to those involved in current Mutual Aid efforts in Washington DC and other places.

This quick introduction barely touches on the issues involved. But it is accompanied by citations for historical materials just mentioned, along with related links, including a March 2021 panel discussion hosted by the Smithsonian. The program, “Yellow Fever and the Free African Society in Philadelphia” is just one of a series on Race and Place. It’s available in full in video. (See below for full academic line up.)

The US National Library of Medicine also provides a whole set of materials, some organized as resources for teachers.

It can be very instructive, as this podcast has mentioned before, to compare resources created or gathered during our current Covid-19 pandemic with resources developed at other points in our history.

Tune in next week to Community thru Covid on We Act Radio.


A.J and R.A. [Absalom Jones and Richard Allen]. A narrative of the proceedings of the Black people... at The Internet Archive.

Carey, Matthew. A short account of the Yellow Fever lately prevalent… at The Internet Archive.

Finger, Simon. Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Finger, Simon. “Yellow Fever” entry in Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Free African Society:

Smithsonian Magazine March 3, 2021. “How Politics and Race Played Out During the 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic.”

“Yellow Fever and the Free African Society in Philadelphia” Panel Discussion:

  • David Barnes, associate professor of history and sociology of science at U Penn;
  • Vanessa Northington Gamble, MD and PhD and professor of medical humanities and medicine at GW;
  • Simon Finger, teaching early American history and social history of medicine at College of New Jersey

— just one of a series from the Smithsonian on “Race and Place” among Smithsonian Race Studies resources.

US National Medical Library on the “Politics of Yellow Fever” (Includes curricular material)

Comment to request more references if interested.

One thought on “Pandemics and Economics in History #12

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s