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

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

by Simon Finger


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801448935
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 05/03/2012
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 636,243
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Simon Finger is Visiting Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Epidemic Constitutions 1

1 "A Rude Place and an Unpolisht Man": William Penn and the Nature of Pennsylvania 7

2 "An Infancy of Government": Population, Authority, and the Problem of Proprietorship 21

3 "A Suitable Charity or an Effectual Security": Community, Contagion, and the Care of Strangers 33

4 "A Body Corporate and Politick": Association, Interest, and Improvement in a Provincial City 57

5 "Improvement in Every Part of the Healing Art": Transatlantic Cultures of Medical Improvement 76

6 "A Fine Field for Professional Improvement": Sites and Sources of Medical Authority in the Revolutionary War 86

7 "In a Yielding State": Nervous Nationalism in the New Republic 103

8 "Those Friendly Reciprocities": Panic and Participation in the Age of Yellow Fever 120

9 "A Matter of Police": Fever and Betrayal in the Federal Union 135

Conclusion: Looking West from Philadelphia 153

Notes 163

Index 219

What People are Saying About This

Billy G. Smith

"Simon Finger has provided us with a new take on medical history in early America, one that will reform our traditional perspectives fundamentally. This well-written, well-conceived book includes both the politics and the medicine back into medical history—something that previous scholars have too often failed to accomplish. The Contagious City offers an insightful analysis of how the collective struggles to prevent disease helped create the political and cultural history of Philadelphia in particular and early America in general."

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