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Teaching with Primary Sources: Yellow Fever in the 18th Century

Instructions for Activity #1

In this activity, work together in small groups to select a primary source and complete a short worksheet that will guide your critical analysis of the item. This activity can work for a synchronous (e.g., a Zoom class session that includes breakout rooms) or asynchronous (e.g., a multi-step discussion on an online forum) class sessions. 

  1. Select an item available here or use an item assigned by your instructor. If your class is large, more than one group can work with an item – each group will bring different perspectives to the primary source analysis.

  2. Next, work in your small groups to analyze the item using the Document Analysis Worksheet as a guide. Take notes as you work - they will come in handy later! You might not be able to answer all of the questions about your item and that is totally fine, but try to make educated guesses.

  3. Each group should then share what they’ve learned about each item with the entire class, either in an online discussion post or by an informal report at the end of a Zoom session. 

  4. Finally, after the groups share, consider as a class how the primary sources connect, note any common themes, and ask questions of each other. The discussion questions below can serve as a starting point for this larger discussion.

Class Discussion Questions for Activity #1

  1. What kind of information (about the symptoms, treatments, etc.) did you learn about yellow fever from the primary sources? Or about what life would have been like during an epidemic?

  2. If you wanted to do more research about yellow fever and how epidemics were experienced by people at the time, what other primary sources might be useful to include? Are there additional perspectives that should be included? 

  3. Primary sources can often raise more questions than answers. What questions do these items raise for you and how might you go about finding answers? 

  4. What connections can you make between the yellow fever epidemics of the 18th century and more recent disease outbreaks (including coronavirus)? 

  5. If you were to write a history of the current coronavirus pandemic, what types of primary sources would you include in your research? How might those sources be different (or similar) to those from the 1790s?

Class Materials for Activity #1

  • Primary Sources (7 items in total)

    • Benjamin Rush letter to Julia Stockton Rush, August 21, 1793.

    • John P. Barney letter, September 19, 1795.

    • “An Inquiry into the Cause of the Prevalence of Yellow Fever in New York” by Valentine Seaman, 1798.

    • Article in the Federal Gazette by Benjamin Rush, September. 12, 1793.

    • Illustrations from Observations sur la fièvre jaune, faites à Cadix, en 1819 by Etienne Pariset, 1820. 

    • Appendix to Minutes of the proceedings of the Committee Appointed on the 14th September, 1793, by the Citizens of Philadelphia, the Northern Liberties and the District of Southwark, to Attend to and Alleviate the Suffering of the Afflicted with the Malignant Fever, Prevalent in the City and Its Vicinity, 1794.

    • Image of treatment tool.

  • Document Analysis Worksheet