• Happy birthday Mary Calhoun (Hot-Air Henry, Henry the Christmas Cat), Steve Sanfield (The Adventures of High John the Conqueror, Bit by Bit).
  • It’s the birth date of Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841-1885), Jacknapes, Daddy Darwin’s Dovecot, and Other Stories.
  • On this day in 1914 Germany declares war on France. Read The War To End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman.
  • In 1936, African-American Jesse Owens wins the 100-meter dash at the Berlin Olympics, as Nazi Germany watches. Read Jesse Owens by Jane Sutcliffe, illustrated by Janice Lee Porter and Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive by Carolyn Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez.
  • Happy birthday to the National Basketball League (NBA) founded in 1949. Read Basketball: A History of Hoops by Mark Stewart and Great Moments in Basketball History by Matt Christopher.
  • It’s Watermelon Day. Read War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace, Watermelon Wishes by Lisa Moser, illustrated by Stacey Schuett, and Watermelon Day by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Dale Gottleib.

On August 3, 1793, a young French sailor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, contracted a virulent fever, which worsened before he died. Newspaper accounts in the new nation’s capital did not even give his name, and everyone went about their usual business in the City of Brotherly Love. But from that moment on, an invisible killer stalked the streets of the city. The local doctors, who include Dr. Benjamin Rush, could not agree about the cause of the deaths. No one knew how to treat the patients. When scores began to die, they started to remove the barely living to a makeshift hospital away from the city. Everyone with means and money fled. The death count mounted daily. Because the city lacked sufficient medical personnel, the Free African Society, composed of former black slaves, became nurses for the patients. Then their members also began to sicken and die. When George Washington finally left the capital a couple of months later, he placed Secretary of War Henry Knox in charge of the country!

In An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 Jim Murphy, who can write like an angel even when describing a world of destruction and chaos, brings an absolutely gripping account of these events to young readers ages ten through fourteen. How does a plague get started? How effective is government in responding? How much do doctors really know about diseases they have rarely seen? If these sound like modern questions, think again: They all apply to the Epidemic of 1793.

An American Plague allows the reader to be swept up in events, breathlessly turning the pages. I myself first read it, unfortunately, on a hot summer night. Mosquitoes (the cause of the plague) flew in droves over the Vermont countryside outside my window. Because I couldn’t stop reading, by the morning I was convinced I had contacted a rare case of yellow fever. That is what great books do for you—they take you away to another place, another period in time, another reality.

Jim Murphy has been given the Margaret A. Edwards award for his exciting information books—including Blizzard, A Boy’s War, The Long Road to Gettysburg, and The Great Chicago Fire. If you don’t know his titles, An American Plague makes an excellent first choice. It makes an excellent book to pair with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793.  Just stay away from mosquitoes while you read it!

Here’s a section from An American Plague:

People now flocked to his home for the cure. One hundred fifty a day sought him out; his five assistants each saw thirty patients a day. They bled so many and so aggressively that they ran out of vessels to hold the blood. In the end they were forced to perform this procedure out-of-doors, bleeding patients directly onto the paving stones of the road.



Neither Rush nor his assistants could handle the press of sick people demanding his cure. Rush then showed members of the Free African Society how to drain blood from a patient and they marched out to perform over 800 bleedings. Even Rush’s eleven-year-old servant boy, Peter, was trained to open a vein and sent out to see the sick.
In reality, Rush’s cure probably did more harm than good. Yet he never lost faith in it, never doubted it. Not even when three of his assistants and his beloved sister, Rebecca, died did he doubt. Why should he? Every day he received letters thanking him for his cure; every day hundreds of desperate people lined up outside his door or sent him frantic notes asking for his help.





Originally posted August 3, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Award Winning, Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, History, Newbery, Science, Sibert
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for An American Plague


  1. G.Perry says:

    I read Jim Murphy’s book “The Great Chicago Fire” and thought it was just excellent. So good in fact, I can still recall images, feel the heat, sense the fear and chaos, and I still see parts of the text he wrote in my mind.. That, is true craftsmanship singing its song.

    “You are the music while the music lasts.” – T.S. Eliot

  2. Jory Hearst says:

    A great, if not gruesome, passage you chose to share for today. I haven’t ever read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, but I was fascinated (and repulsed) by Jim Murphy’s account of the yellow fever. He engages his reader so thoroughly. I also loved The Great Chicago Fire, I agree with that recommendation. (And have just read Truce, his most recent, which had a different style, but was also a very compelling introduction to World War I.)

  3. I was working as an assistant at Clarion the year AN AMERICAN PLAGUE won its many awards; it was my first or second year in NYC and with a full-time publishing job (read: I was crazy-broke). By the end of the year, I told Jim I was pretty sure that I’d had more fancy dinners with him than possibly any other man in my life. :)

  4. J Thomas says:

    I have read both books!! Murphy is an excellent author whom, one can
    tell while reading his work, does an immense amount of research.
    Loved the yellow fever book read it with my daughter as a sixth grade
    reading assignment. Also, in the past, I met Laurie Anderson!!!
    Another superb author like Murphy!!! I have read Fever it was
    excellent. These authors who can make the reader feel
    as though they are “right there” are amazing. Chains, Forge and soon
    to be Ashes to complete the trilogy by Anderson are soooo
    excellent too!!!!!

  5. J. Hawkins says:

    Great Book!

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