America’s First Plague: The Deadly 1793 Epidemic that Crippled a Young Nation

Document Type


Publication Date



The national government reacted slowly as the disease spread. Soon, citizens donned protective masks, and the authorities ordered quarantines. The streets emptied. Doubters questioned the science and disobeyed. The year: 1793. The place: young America, from Baltimore to Boston but especially in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest city and seat of the federal government. Trade ships from countries with endemic yellow fever carried infected mosquitoes to the United States, and for three long months, the yellow fever virus ravaged the eastern seaboard. The federal government abandoned the city and scattered, leaving a dangerous leadership gap. By the end of the pandemic, ten percent of Philadelphians had died.

On May 3, we engaged in a thought-provoking conversation with Dr. Robert Watson, a distinguished American History professor and Avron Fogelman Research Professor at Lynn University.

During our webinar, Dr. Watson discussed his upcoming book, “America’s First Plague,” which explores the heavily politicized 1793 yellow fever pandemic that ravaged Philadelphia, the interim capital city. We learned the responses of medical professionals and founding fathers like Washington, Hamilton, and Jefferson as they struggled to deal with the crisis. Our discussion also highlighted the tragic reality of how the yellow fever pandemic draws many parallels with the current COVID-19 crisis, making this topic that much more important.


United States Capitol Historical Society


Washington, DC


College of Arts and Sciences