The History of Yellow Fever
An Essay on the Birth of Tropical Medicine
François Delaporte's History of Yellow Fever is a detective story whose protagonist is an idea rather than a person. Most importantly, while tracing this fascinating story, it demonstrates the practical value of an epistemological approach to the history of science. By casting the story of the conquest of yellow fever in an entirely new light, Delaporte is also able to elucidate the political uses to which that story has been put, in both Cuba and the United States. The mystery of yellow fever was unraveled in 1900 a momentous event that not only ensured the eradication of this scourge but pointed the way to the birth of a science of tropical medicine. But how was the mystery unraveled? There are two mutually antagonistic accounts, epitomized many years later in two nationalistic paintings: a Cuban painting showing Dr. Carlos Finlay presenting to the American Commission his theory that the Culex mosquito is the carrier of the yellow fever germ, and an American painting of Dr. Walter Reed's experimental proof of the manner of transmission. Delaporte shows both pictures to be false because they neglect important historical antecedents and connectives. What occurred in 1900 that is worth our attention, he observes, is not a discovery that must be credited to some national hero, but an epistemological shift, built on a foundation of much previous work and inference, that allowed scientists to conceive of the mosquito as a vector for the transmission of disease.
François Delaporte is a Research Associate at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche médicale in Paris. He has written about the origins of the science of botany in Nature's Second Kingdom and about the origins of public health in Disease and Civilization.