The Contagious City

The Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia

Simon Finger
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Contagious City
    Book Description:

    By the time William Penn was planning the colony that would come to be called Pennsylvania, with Philadelphia at its heart, Europeans on both sides of the ocean had long experience with the hazards of city life, disease the most terrifying among them. Drawing from those experiences, colonists hoped to create new urban forms that combined the commercial advantages of a seaport with the health benefits of the country. The Contagious City details how early Americans struggled to preserve their collective health against both the strange new perils of the colonial environment and the familiar dangers of the traditional city, through a period of profound transformation in both politics and medicine.

    Philadelphia was the paramount example of this reforming tendency. Tracing the city's history from its founding on the banks of the Delaware River in 1682 to the yellow fever outbreak of 1793, Simon Finger emphasizes the importance of public health and population control in decisions made by the city's planners and leaders. He also shows that key figures in the city's history, including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, brought their keen interest in science and medicine into the political sphere. Throughout his account, Finger makes clear that medicine and politics were inextricably linked, and that both undergirded the debates over such crucial concerns as the city's location, its urban plan, its immigration policy, and its creation of institutions of public safety. In framing the history of Philadelphia through the imperatives of public health, The Contagious City offers a bold new vision of the urban history of colonial America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6400-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: Epidemic Constitutions
    (pp. 1-6)

    In 1777, Pierre Nicole was a captain of the guards in the British army, stationed in occupied Philadelphia. The clever Swiss-born officer was “wellacquainted with the Country and with the people,” which made him an effective liaison between the army and the area’s covert loyalist population.¹ It also made him the capable cartographer and draftsman who, under the engineer John Montresor, produced an astonishing portrait of the revolutionary city. As the prominent earthworks and fortresses demonstrate, this was a city at war, indeed under occupation, when Nicole drafted the map. The civilian population was subject to the whims of a...

  6. 1 “A Rude Place and an Unpolisht Man”: William Penn and the Nature of Pennsylvania
    (pp. 7-20)

    When Pennsylvania was in its planning stages, William Petty was one of the many figures to offer William Penn advice on establishing his new colony. Petty was in the process of developing a mode of inquiry he called “political arithmetick,” which explained national power in demographic terms. In keeping with that premise, he suggested that Penn plant the future Philadelphia on a “peece of land . . . chosen for it’s situation, healthfulness, and fertility.” Both men, like their contemporaries, understood that a healthy location was a critical factor in the success or failure of their ventures. When Penn invited...

  7. 2 “An Infancy of Government”: Population, Authority, and the Problem of Proprietorship
    (pp. 21-32)

    When he was still hopeful about the future of his infant province, William Penn reminded his councilors that it was not “wealth or trade that Makes a government great,” but “sobriety, Peace, temperance, labour and equal administration.” Pennsylvania’s “climat [was] as fitt” for those qualities “as any other in the world,” but atmospheres alone could not guarantee the success of Penn’s vision. Colonizing required hard work, and labor required the bodies to do it. Penn hoped that his colony would be peopled with “men of universal spirits,” who would harmoniously contribute to the shared project of improvement. Both inclination and...

  8. 3 “A Suitable Charity or an Effectual Security”: Community, Contagion, and the Care of Strangers
    (pp. 33-56)

    The earliest Pennsylvania settlers worried about whether they would transform the environment before it transformed them, and by the early eighteenth century, most were confident that they had.¹ But as Philadelphia expanded, its established population faced a new question: Would they be able to remain Pennsylvanian in the face of shifting demographics, or would the influx of newcomers change what it meant to be Pennsylvanian? The increasingly varied origins of the migrants forced a community that began as a self-consciously English and Quaker colony to develop a corporate identity that could encompass accelerating mobility and increasing linguistic, religious, and cultural...

  9. 4 “A Body Corporate and Politick”: Association, Interest, and Improvement in a Provincial City
    (pp. 57-75)

    Philadelphia never had been a “green country towne,” and by the middle of the eighteenth century, a variety of factors placed Pennsylvania “upon the growing hand, more than any of the provinces of America.” As hub of the regional economy and heart of the colonial print culture, the Quaker city fostered the intellectual and social ferment that made it the continental seat of culture and commerce. The British solider, Lord Adam Gordon, pronounced that the spectacular progress of its population and commerce made Philadelphia “one of the wonders of the world.” Moreover, it was not just economic development, but built...

  10. 5 “Improvement in Every Part of the Healing Art”: Transatlantic Cultures of Medical Improvement
    (pp. 76-85)

    As medical men became self-conscious agents of reform in a broader social context, they came to view their ambit as encompassing nearly the whole of the world. They launched ambitious collaborative investigations into natural philosophy, pursuing knowledge that they promised would benefit all humankind. As these far-flung but closely linked researchers sought out universal principles, their shared ventures kindled humane, fraternal, and philanthropic sentiments. Promoting health was more than the idle pursuit of medical elites. It was a cornerstone of the Enlightenment culture of universal improvement. Reformers such as Benjamin Franklin and his friend John Fothergill, London’s renowned Quaker physician...

  11. 6 “A Fine Field for Professional Improvement”: Sites and Sources of Medical Authority in the Revolutionary War
    (pp. 86-102)

    When General Howe’s army descended upon the revolutionary capital, “great numbers” of wounded Continental troops swarmed into Philadelphia, leaving a scattered trail of “hundreds of their muskets laying in the road,” dropped by the fallen and the fleeing. Elizabeth Drinker recalled that in the days that followed, she heard nothing but “carriages constantly passing with the Inhabitants going away.” Some wanted to get themselves safely within Patriot-held territory. Some feared another round of the pillaging that both armies practiced in whatever towns they occupied. Some, however, went to join with the Continental Army, to serve as nurses, surgeons, and other...

  12. 7 “In a Yielding State”: Nervous Nationalism in the New Republic
    (pp. 103-119)

    As the nation recovered from war, Rush and his cohort returned to a Philadelphia damaged, dirty, and growing. They were full of projects to improve both city and nation and optimistic that they would succeed. “In America,” Rush proclaimed, “everything is new and yielding. Here genius and benevolence may have full scope. Here the benefactor of mankind may realize all his schemes.” He identified a spirit of pragmatic experimentation in the new republic that encompassed medical practice, political organization, and social order. “The minds of the Americans are at present in a yielding state,” he wrote, “and . . ....

  13. 8 “Those Friendly Reciprocities”: Panic and Participation in the Age of Yellow Fever
    (pp. 120-134)

    At the end of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia found itself in the grip of an implacable horror, wracked by “the hurricane of the human frame.” Yellow fever loomed like the storm, “equally uncertain in its recurrence, equally dark and inscrutable in its cause, equally and deplorably certain as to the reality of its existence.” In 1793, it struck for the first time in thirty years, opening a grim epoch in the city’s history. “There was never perhaps a more gloomy season,” wrote one chronicler, “never a period more pregnant with calamities, and big with death.” In the next dozen years,...

  14. 9 “A Matter of Police”: Fever and Betrayal in the Federal Union
    (pp. 135-152)

    In April 1796, Congressman Samuel Smith of Maryland introduced a bill to grant the president discretion over quarantine policy throughout the union, opening a grueling argument over the proper borders of state and federal power. Toward the end of the debate, North Carolina’s James Holland rose to argue that, like citizens in a community, the states were best equipped to administer local quarantines: “To preserve one’s health was an article of self-defense. Every individual should take his own measures to preserve his own health, and each State should judge the best way of doing it for its own district.”¹ Individual...

  15. Conclusion: Looking West from Philadelphia
    (pp. 153-162)

    In the spring of 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent his secretary Meriwether Lewis to Philadelphia to prepare for the journey he would begin the next year with William Clark and the Corps of Discovery. In many ways, the city’s prominence was waning. New York was already supplanting it as the nation’s commercial and financial center.¹ Congress transferred the nation’s capital to a new federal district on the Potomac, and Pennsylvanians moved the state capital to Lancaster, closer to the growing western population.² But Philadelphia remained the capital of America’s intellectual life, perhaps the only place where Lewis could acquire the specialized...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 163-218)
  17. Index
    (pp. 219-226)