King's College London
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The great leveller: humanity's struggle against infectious disease

Sailors and yellow fever

Additional title page with author's inscriptionAdditional title page with author's inscriptionAs the case of the Éclair suggests, personal, political, and commercial agendas were often as important in influencing debates over quarantine as concerns over public health.

Still, the clearest way to settle the quarantine issue decisively was surely to resolve the medical puzzle at its heart by determining once and for all whether or not yellow fever was contagious. And indeed, this question was one of the most divisive and persistent in British medicine from the 1790s until at least the 1850s, attracting the attention of a number of prominent physicians.

Those who argued that yellow fever is not a contagious disease had often spent time living and working in tropical climates, where the belief that environment and sanitary conditions were responsible for the disease was considered common sense. James Veitch (1770?–1856), who served as principal surgeon of the Royal Naval Hospital of Antigua, was one such individual. He writes that ‘the opportunities that have presented themselves, while serving in a tropical climate, may probably enable me to throw some light on the causes of yellow fever’.

Drawing from this experience, Veitch argues that it is the health and vigour of young Europeans that cause them to be particularly susceptible to the disease. In addition, he believes that the fact that they are poorly assimilated to the tropical climate, and intemperate in their dietary choices, leaves them further vulnerable. He argues that first-hand evidence suggests that the disease is a product of environment and advocates that preventative measures reflect this fact.

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