Medicine and Disease

Yellow Fever

Does yellow fever still exist?

Yellow fever, an acute infectious disease, does still exist in some select areas of the world. Outbreaks still occur in jungle areas. The disease was once widespread, afflicting people in tropical climates such as Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. But with exploration during the 1500s and 1600s, and the opening of trade routes during the 1700s, the disease spread to North America by 1699, when there were epidemics in Charleston, South Carolina, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; three years later, an epidemic broke out in New York City. Yellow fever first materialized in Europe in 1723. An epidemic in Philadelphia in 1793 was determined to have been carried there aboard a ship from the West Indies; nearly all of the city’s people were afflicted by the fever, and more than 4,000 people died in what has been called the worst health disaster ever to befall an American city.

Breakthroughs in controlling yellow fever came in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1881 Cuban physician Carlos Finlay (1833–1915) wrote a paper suggesting that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. This was proved to be true by U.S. Army surgeon Walter Reed (1851–1902), who in 1900 headed a commission sent to Cuba to investigate the cause and mode of transmission of yellow fever. With this knowledge, U.S. Army officer and physician William Gorgas (1854–1920) applied strict measures to destroy mosquitoes in Havana, eventually eliminating yellow fever from the Cuban port city. Serving as chief sanitary officer of the Panama Canal Commission from 1904 to 1913, Gorgas implemented similar measures in the Panama Canal Zone, where the disease had been a menace. Again his methods proved effective, greatly reducing the instances of yellow fever, which allowed the canal to be completed.

In 1937 the 17-D vaccine was developed by American physician and bacteriologist Max Theiler (1899–1972). The vaccine was found to be effective in combating yellow fever. In 1951 Theiler was awarded the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for his discoveries concerning the infectious disease. Conquering yellow fever was one of the great achievements of modern medicine.


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