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Nurse Kezia Payne DePelchin survived numerous yellow fever epidemics and this module suggests ways to teach her writings in the classroom.

Environmental history in the classroom: yellow fever as a case study

In early twentieth-century Cuba, the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission, led by Walter Reed, discovered that mosquitoes were responsible for the spread of yellow fever across the globe. Prior to Reed's findings, people had lived in fear of a disease that appeared to strike with no warning or logic. Yellow fever, characterized by a high fever, black vomit, and skin yellowing, often proved fatal. In the 1790s numerous cities in the U.S. were crippled by the fever and the epidemics returned at regular intervals until 1905, "the last American yellow fever epidemic"(Hays, 265). In two letters to her sister ( October 27, 1878 and January 27, 1879 ) and one ( October 13, 1878 ) to the Memphis Telegram , nurse Kezia Payne DePelchin describes the yellow fever outbreak of 1878-1879 that spread across Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana, leading to the deaths of an estimated 4,100 people in Mississippi alone (Nuwer, 126). These three documents are physically housed in Rice University's Woodson Research Center, but are made available online through the ‘Our Americas’ Archive Partnership (a digital collaboration on the hemispheric Americas). While accounts of yellow fever are not overly rare, DePelchin’s perspective is unique in that she managed to survive close contact with infected individuals during numerous epidemics due to her immunity acquired by surviving the illness early in life. While there are a variety of ways to approach her writings, this module contends that DePelchin's writings are a resource for educators interested in using the lens of environmental history as a way to describe the economic growth, the scientific advances, and the development of civic involvement that occurred in the U.S. during the 1870s.

Just as social history, an outgrowth of the 1970s, is now considered a commonplace part of college and high school history textbooks, environmental history, one of the newest and most engaging forms of historical inquiry, is gradually being incorporated in the classroom. Environmental historians use primary documents to explore how the environment (insects, natural disasters, diseases, etc.) impacts and shapes human history in a variety of ways. For an example of a good, recent environmental history see Matthew Mulcahy’s Hurricanes and Society (2006) (see full biographical details below). To begin with, educators can emphasize how, although she did not realize it at the time, DePelchin, through her letters, constructed an environmental history of the 1878-1879 yellow fever outbreak. She traced the characteristics of the illness, accounted for the “collection” of the victims, and wondered why citizens so quickly began to “dance over the ashes” of the dead. DePelchin eventually returned back to Texas, but she wrote to her sister that “the remembrance of the awful scenes of the great epidemic have cast a shadow on my heart that will never pass away.” A single lecture can focus on DePelchin or environmental history can serve as a theme carried throughout the entire course.

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Source:  OpenStax, Yellow fever: medicine in the western hemisphere. OpenStax CNX. Oct 11, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11312/1.4
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