Episode 316: Kathryn Olivarius, Yellow Fever, Immunity, and Early New Orleans

In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. This purchase included the important port city of New Orleans. But the United States did not just acquire the city’s land, peoples, and wealth– the American government also inherited the city’s Yellow Fever problem. 

Kathryn Olivarius, an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University and author of Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom, leads us on an exploration of yellow fever, immunity, and inequality in early New Orleans.

This episode is supported by an American Rescue Plan grant to the Omohundro Institute from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

About the Show

Ben Franklin’s World is a podcast about early American history.

It is a show for people who love history and for those who want to know more about the historical people and events that have impacted and shaped our present-day world.

Ben Franklin’s World is a production of the Omohundro Institute.

Episode Summary

Kathryn Olivarus is an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University who specializes in the antebellum South, the Greater Caribbean, and disease. Her forthcoming book is Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom, tells a story of yellow fever, immunity, and inequality in early New Orleans.

During our discussion, Kathryn reveals what epidemic yellow fever was and how it spread in early America; How early New Orleanians used yellow fever and ideas about immunity to create a harsher system of racialized and class-based inequality; And what the history of disease can tell us about early American history.

What You’ll Discover

  • Symptoms and Mortality Rates of Yellow Fever
  • How Yellow Fever Came to North America
  • The History of Yellow Fever Epidemics in Early American Colonies
  • Differences Between Smallpox Epidemics and Yellow Fever Epidemics
  • How Early Americans Attempted to Mitigate the Spread of Diseases
  • How Yellow Fever Was Treated in Early America
  • The History and Significance of Early New Orleans
  • New Orleans First Yellow Fever Epidemic
  • Differences Between Northern and Southern Cities' Treatment of Epidemics in the 19th Century
  • Why New Orleans Became a Hub for Yellow Fever
  • The Racial, Gender, and Social Order of 19th Century New Orleans
  • How Yellow Fever Impacted American Governance Following the Louisiana Purchase
  • How Early New Orleanians Manipulated Ideas About Yellow Fever and Immunity to Create a Harsher, Racialized Society
  • Immunocapital or Ideas about Disease Immunity and Privilege in Early America
  • How Knowledge of Yellow Fever Immunity was Established in Early New Orleans
  • How Early New Orleanians Weaponized Yellow Fever

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Complementary Episodes

Time Warp PlainTime Warp Question

In your opinion, had a procedure like inoculation or vaccination been available for Yellow Fever, how might the power structure of Early New Orleans have been different?

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