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History of Yellow Fever

Exploring the history of Yellow Fever with subject specific resources


Yellow Fever is a viral disease of the genus Flavivirus that is spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes. The disease ravaged communities throughout the eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast before a vaccine was finally discovered in the early 20th century. These outbreaks caused varying degrees of social and political strife in each of the communities they impacted. This guide identifies the best resources for further examining the major facets of life affected by these epidemics. 


Four panel illustration showing progression of symptoms

1820 illustration depicting the progression of symptoms. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

Yellow fever is transmitted to humans through the bites of infected Aedes and Haemagogus mosquitoes and has an incubation period of 3-6 days. Many of those who contract yellow fever do not exhibit any symptoms while others can exhibit common symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, nausea and vomiting. In most cases, these symptoms disappear after 3-4 days.

A small percentage of those affected, however, enter a more serious phase of the illness within 24 hours after recovering from the initial symptoms. This phase can include a high fever, abdominal pain with vomiting, and bleeding from the mouth, nose, eyes, and stomach. Jaundice is another common symptom of this phase and is the origin for the name "Yellow Fever". Half of those who enter this phase die within 7-10 days. The first major epidemic to hit the United States killed 10% of the population of its capital city, Philadelphia.

Portrait of Dr. Carlos Finlay                                  Portraits of the US Army yellow fever commission members

Portrait of Dr. Carlos Finlay ca. 1902 (left) and portraits of the Yellow Fever Commission, undated (right). Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine

The first discovery that yellow fever was transmitted through the bites from mosquitoes is attributed to Cuban physician Carlos J. Finlay. His theories weren't accepted by the scientific community however until the American Yellow Fever Commission, headed by Major Walter Reed, confirmed Dr. Finlay's claim. Mosquito prevention actions controlled the outbreaks of yellow fever until a vaccine was invented in the 1940s.