Montalbano Essay: Understanding COVID-19 Via the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic

Kathryn Montalbano

We all have different recollections of how we reacted to the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. For some of us, we may not have entirely processed the myriad ways this life-altering global event affected or continues to affect us. For many, the acceptance of perpetual confinement in dwelling spaces forced us to reevaluate how we organized our days, which might have included re-imagining how to overcome our newly formed spatial boundaries through intellectual and creative pursuits. For academics, reactions were no less diverse given the unique ways the pandemic has transformed our personal and professional lives.

Comprehending COVID-19

My longstanding coping mechanism for processing events that are beyond my control has always been, for as long as I can remember, intellectual inquiry—and the COVID-19 pandemic was no exception. As a historian of communications and journalism, I became curious about which epidemics or pandemics most closely resembled the outbreak that first became a stark reality in my little corner of the North Georgia mountains in March of 2020. I found myself digging into digital archives to examine, more specifically, whether newspaper coverage of epidemics and pandemics of the past resembled mass and social media discourse of the present. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the glaring reality of a deadly disease with no clear end in sight, one that was (and has been) exacerbated by disinformation about the efficacy of the vaccines and the very existence of the disease—as well as by conflicting journalistic approaches to covering the pandemic—I found solace in trying to uncover the historical patterns of civilian and journalistic responses to a newly identified disease.

Excavating Expertise

Once I had narrowed down my focus to the 1878 yellow fever epidemic and its impact on the Mississippi Valley region, I starting noticing some uncanny parallels—not just between the perils plaguing the human condition, past and present, but in how the distribution of information was a major factor in both public health crises. The three key themes that my research analyzes in one Vicksburg and two New Orleans newspapers—prevention, misinformation, and tensions between cities and their respective newspapers—would seem very similar to those who have been observing media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. As I note in the article, specific parallels between the two periods include concern in journalistic media over the accuracy of information that papers received from even expert sources, as well as suspicion and even conspiracy theories spreading within and between medical and journalistic communities of cities and regions connected by location and trade about distorted or corrupted information.

Journalism History as an Interdisciplinary Endeavor

In its focus on the history of this particular epidemic, this article is, in some ways, quite different from my overall research agenda. Learning and engaging with the robust trove of relevant scholarship in the history of epidemics and pandemics was a challenge, but a challenge that I am accustomed to from working across three subfields—the history of communications, religion and media, and communication law. And in a strange way, closely scrutinizing a public health emergency of a seemingly distant place and past provided some semblance of control and explanation (albeit, through the archives) of that which could not be controlled or explained in 2020.

In other ways (namely, in terms of methodology and process), this article is very much in line with my research agenda. I tend to identify contemporary phenomena or problems in the United States rooted in media and communication, and then I trace their historical context to better understand those problems—such as governmental surveillance of marginalized religious groups; the survival and death of anonymous, hyperlocal digital platforms; and how the NRB (National Religious Broadcasters) connects the longstanding allegations of conservative censorship within mid-twentieth-century radio regulation and contemporary net neutrality debates. In working through the extent to which this article fits within my larger research agenda, I am especially grateful to have realized just how interdisciplinary the history of journalism really is, leveraged best, in my opinion, when trying to more deeply understand and possibly inform some of the most pressing policy issues plaguing our national and global networks today.

Preserving the Stories of Unsung Heroes

If nothing else, journalism historians can offer a glimpse into the efforts of the unsung heroes who might otherwise remain buried in the archives. The editors of Vicksburg’s Daily Commercial remarked toward the end of 1878 about the contributions of printers in the collective effort against the yellow fever:

The members of the craft who remained in New Orleans, Vicksburg and Memphis through the trying period rendered services that cannot be too highly appreciated. They were silent workers, whose names were seldom mentioned, but whose heroic endurance enabled the conductors of the press to keep the world informed of what was going on, and to preserve a record of the sufferings, death and martyrdom of an era scarcely paralleled in the world’s history.[1]

In a way, the article preserves the legacy of these silent workers. I am sure that future historians will do the same for the countless numbers of nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, child care providers, teachers, and journalists who have worked on the front lines amid the ongoing perils of COVID-19.

[1] “Memphis; Mr. Clem Davis; Vicksburg; New Orleans,” Daily Commercial, December 10, 1878.

Featured image: “Sisters of Charity Administering to Sick and Dying Victims of Yellow Fever,” sketch from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 20, 1879. Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives via Digital Library of Tennessee.

About the author: Kathryn Montalbano is an assistant professor of journalism (communication law) in the Department of Communication at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. She is the author of “Preventing Yellow Jack and Yellow Journalism: Tensions in Mississippi Valley News Coverage of the 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic” in the December issue of Journalism History.

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