Some Interesting Things I Found on the Internet, November Edition: A Very Short Introduction to Plagues and Diseases We Know and Used to Know

In 1956, Elvis Presley got his polio vaccine in front of the press. As an influential figure, this act helped raise vaccine rates from 75 percent to 90 percent. (Department Of Health Collection/NYC Municipal Archives)





This little tidbit about a series of cholera outbreaks in Cleveland only caught my attention because of the city, not the illness. For some reason, I have bumped into Cleveland a lot this fall semester in a graduate class I am teaching on African American autobiography. William Wells Brown, the St. Louis slave who escaped at the age of 19, wound up in Cleveland for several years, helping other enslaved Blacks escape. Little did I know that Cleveland was some hub or semi-hub of the underground railroad or something like that. Brown went on to become a noted Black abolitionist speaker, international antislavery activist, novelist, playwright, and historian, a true man of letters and it all seemed to begin when he became a free man in Cleveland. Then, a few books later, the class read Chester Himes’s The Quality of Hurt, the first volume of his two-volume autobiography, discovering that his family, after his younger brother was blinded in a chemistry experiment gone awry, stopped in St. Louis for a year but went on to Cleveland, where Himes spent his formative years as a teenager. After serving seven years in prison for armed robbery, Himes returned to Cleveland to become something of a celebrated writer there. Big fish in a small pond stuff, as he rightly saw it. While in Cleveland, Himes became friends with Langston Hughes who, you guessed it, was living in Cleveland and writes about his time in the second volume of his two-volume autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander. And we read Hughes’s autobiography in the class as well. I had never paid any attention to the Cleveland connection when I previously read these books. (Of course, I never read them in succession before.) If only I had noticed beforehand, I could have assigned Carl Stokes’s autobiography, Promises of Power, as a culmination. Stokes, elected in November 1967, took office in January 1968 as Cleveland’s first Black mayor. That is what happens when you teach courses; there is always a better one hidden in the one you are teaching that you will probably never get to teach. Cholera, of course, is interesting too.

Here is a detailed article about the yellow fever outbreak that devastated Memphis in 1878 that reminds us how horrifying that plague was. I do not know if a movie was ever made about Memphis in 1878, but, if not, filmmakers are missing a compelling subject; it could combine Wes Craven and Mario Bava with Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. In any case, half the population of the city departed. Those who remained died like flies in a glue trap. Blacks, surprisingly, died at a much lower rate than Whites. But it has always been believed that Blacks were largely immune to yellow fever. The famed minister Richard Allen and other Blacks in Philadelphia got jobs burying the dead during the yellow fever outbreak there in 1793. General Nathan Bedford Forest, Shelby Foote’s favorite Confederate and one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, died one year earlier, before the plague. I always keep making the mistake that he died during the plague. I wonder what Freudian significance that little mental tic has.

If it was commonly thought that yellow fever was a White disease despite contrary evidence, then it should come as no surprise that polio was considered a White disease since, for the White medical establishment, there seemed little evidence that Blacks were stricken with it. Blacks got syphilis and Whites got polio. Naturally, the racist practices of the White medical establishment led to the disease being underdiagnosed and undetected among Blacks. The differential susceptibility theory was, in part, a way to flatter Whites—more advanced races got polio—and to justify the unequal distribution of medical resources. As this article tells us, activists and Black scientists had to change the medical profession’s and the public’s thinking about this. Blacks being diagnosed with polio was a big step forward for Black medical care and for the drive for integration.

The previous article mentions HeLa cells, but this article tells us the story of the Black scientists at Tuskegee who were instrumental to the development of lines of these cells that helped to make the testing of the Salk vaccine possible. And, of course, Henrietta Lacks contributed the original line of HeLa cells.

In a certain era, if you were Black and died of a disease that was not readily identifiable, the first guess, especially by Whites, was always syphilis. (It was probably the final guess too.) Blacks had loose morals and all that. In this article, famous White painters, also of loose morals which were a sign of their iconoclastic genius, their Bohemian dissent, rather than their racial shortcomings as was the case with Blacks, died, it seemed, quite often from syphilis. Of course, if the client of these prostitutes or sex workers died frequently from this disease, how often must the women have died of it?

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!