The Spatial Ecology of Yellow Fever in New Orleans, 1853

City of New Orleans, Louisiana in 1872. A steel engraving from a study by Alfred Rudolph Waud, engraved by D. G. Thompson and published in Picturesque America, D. Appleton & Company, New York, New York 1872, 1:265. Scanned from the book. From

Reading the Historical Geography Research Group’s summer newsletter led me (via a piece by David Beckingham) to look at an interesting moment in the history of medical cartography: a map by Dr. Edward H. Barton that was included in his “Report upon the Sanitary Condition of New Orleans” (part of the famous Report of the Sanitary Commission of New Orleans on the Epidemic Yellow Fever of 1853).

Caption: E. H. Barton’s Sanitary Map of New Orleans (1854) depicts “various nuisances and other causes” that he associated with yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases. Via Willoughby, 2018. This image was published by the New Orleans Sanitary Commission. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

As Stevenson (1965) points out, this actually wouldn’t qualify as a spot map of disease, nor does it fulfil the claim for “presenting the localization of all the cases of yellow fever of the year”, though it does show the general locality. Indeed, he points out that this would have been a graphic challenge, given that there were nearly 30,000 cases in that year. Yet the map is important for the history of social cartography for two reasons: First, it presents an apparent association between locale and the clustering of disease, showing (in glorious detail), the location of “various Nuisances and other causes affecting the Salubrity of the City. . . . ,” such as cemeteries, slaughter houses, “vacheries,” [“nasties”] livery stables, sugar depots on the levee, factories of various kinds, open basins and unfilled lots, canals, drains, and gas works, not omitting “fever nests” and crowded boarding houses. It also shows pavements of stone, plank roads, and unsurfaced streets, as well as regions where soil had been disturbed and overturned, alongside information on the seven ships that – it was thought at the time – were the source of the disease. Second, it provides evidence of an association between topography and spatial layout.

Detail of E. H. Barton’s Sanitary Map of New Orleans (1854) depicts “various nuisances and other causes” that he associated with yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases. The dark lines “indicate disturbances of the soil, as digging for Railroads, earth thrown from Canals, Drains, or Ditches, or buildings laying down pipes for water or gas,” and the checkered lines “indicate such Nuisances as Cemeteries … Markets, Sugar depots on the levee … Fever nests, [and] Crowded boarding houses.” Via Willoughby, 2018.
Barton’s report showed how a plague spot “exists here on the river bank, because at this season (August and September) the river is low and the bank exposed, leaving an extensive surface—the common receptacle of all kinds of filth—and here, or not far distant, we find the large amount of unacclimated population; but it [the disease] first breaks out and spreads in St. Thomas and Madison streets, St. Mary street, about the Markets, at the triangle, Gormley’s Basin, &c. Sec. . . . — all filthy, crowded and badly ventilated localities.” (quoted in Stevenson, 1965, 257-258)

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, yellow fever is spread via Aedes (Stegomyia) aegypti, commonly known as the Yellow fever mosquito. It is a known vector of several viruses including yellow fever virus, dengue virus chikungunya virus and Zika virus. It thrives in densely populated areas which lack reliable water supplies, waste management and sanitation.

In fact, as Willoughby (2018) maintains, the construction of the city 300 years ago, which entailed draining the swamps and building flood walls against the Mississippi, shaped its landscape for the long term. In addition, massive demographic change that brought about a large influx of workers, including slaves, contributed to the emergence of New Orleans and its surroundings as a zone of yellow fever. The map featured above captured the city shortly after the most devastating epidemic of the disease, that killed nearly 15% of its inhabitants.

Barton was an anticontagionist – rather than supporting the idea of disease being spread through human contact – anticontagionists believed that contagion occurred due to the locale, namely – that the environment of the locale itself was blamed for the disease. (See full explanation in Gilbert, 2002). The local stench was supposedly a sign of this, though confusingly there was the added element of incomers (“foreign elements” bringing the disease with them via the ports. This was a theory that had barely progressed from Seaman’s yellow fever maps of New York, 1799 (see image below), which had similarly showed the apparent association between “the fever” and the port. Yet, the report is significantly more sophisticated, with detailed descriptions of sanitary conditions, along with tables of statistics.

Plate II from Seaman’s “An Inquiry into the Cause of the Prevalence of the Yellow Fever in New-York,” dated March 10, 1797. Medical Repository, 1 (1800, 2nd edition): 303-323 [Rare Books Collection]. Image via Historic Maps Collection, Princeton University Library © 2012  
The spatial ecology of the disease is clear from Barton’s report. What is saddening to note is the preponderance of cases having occurred close to the water, in low-lying areas. That same spatial patterning can be seen 100 years later in the redlining map of New Orleans, pictured below, which designated the districts by the water as being most at risk for defaulting from loans. It is no coincidence that the city surveyor coloured as red, namely “hazardous” vast tracts of areas inhabited by “Negroes”, who were spatially segregated from the white inhabitants of the city due to racial zoning laws from decades earlier. It is also a sad truth to find that the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also disproportionately affected the city’s African Americans, still living in the flood plain 60 years after the city’s spatial patterns of poverty had been fixed on a map.

Redline map of New Orleans, c. 1935, showing the desirability, namely the risk of loan defaults, of making bank loans to property in the city. This is part of a national programme of assessing neighbourhoods in major cities in the US. Ranking was according to four grades A to D, colour coded as green, blue, yellow and red, respectively; hence redlining (in fact, red shading would be more precise). Image via  NATIONAL ARCHIVES CATALOG


Gilbert, Pamela K. 2002. The Victorian Social Body and Urban Cartography. In Imagined Londons, edited by P. K. Gilbert: State University of New York Press.

Stevenson, Lloyd G. 1965. Putting Disease on the Map: The Early Use of Spot Maps in the Study of Yellow Fever. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 20 (3):226-261.

Willoughby, Urmi Engineer. 2018. The Ecology of Yellow Fever in Antebellum New Orleans: Sugar, Water Control, and Urban Development. Environment & Society Portal, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society Spring 2018 (1).

See also: Chapter 2. Disease: The city as organism in Vaughan, L. 2018 (IN PRESS). Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography. London: UCL Press.


Mapping disease: typhoid in 1890s Wellington, New Zealand

From the turn of the 19th century, social cartography was centred on mapping contagious disease – the most urgent problem of rapidly growing cities around the world. The examples which feature in my forthcoming book, Mapping Society range from Yellow Fever in New York, 1798, followed by a large number of maps of cholera, ranging across France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Before the creation of epidemiology as a science in its own right, it was the combined efforts of physicians and medical officers (namely public health officials, many of whom themselves had medical training) that contributed the effort of understanding the spatial distribution of disease.

In the UK, it was John Snow who famously hypothesised in the 1850s that cholera was caused by a germ spread through contaminated water, in contrast with the prevalent miasma theory of contagion through bad air (though evidently there were scientists in Italy and Germany working on isolating the bacterium several years previously). The two theories were debated vigorously, but Snow’s ground-breaking studies of the 1853–5 epidemic resulted in his being considered the father of epidemiology, due not only to his well-reasoned statistics but to his maps, which illustrated to a lay audience the evidence of a cluster of cholera cases amongst people living close to a single water pump on Broad Street and, hence, that contaminated water was the source of the disease.

Nevertheless, both in Europe and much farther afield in New Zealand, the evidence for cholera and typhoid being water-borne continued to be debated, with the Wellington medical officer William Chapple’s mapping the incidence of typhoid across the city, to see if he could find where blocked pipes were causing sewer vapours to back up into houses (see image below[i]).

Typhoid map layout_zoom
Section of map of central Wellington drawn up by the city’s medical officer, William Chapple, to show the location of typhoid between 1890 and 1892. Source: Wellington City Archives. Reference: 00233:34:1892/740 typhoid map

Chapple’s map identifies a cluster of typhoid cases in the Holland Street area of the city, where he had found that the street’s sewer was leaking had contaminated the surrounding soil. Coupled to empirical fieldwork, which found overcrowded housing in the street, the maps were able to highlight (with graphic emphasis of the leaking sewer), the spatial association between housing quality, urban situation and disease.

While the map is quite late for the sequence of disease maps reported in Mapping Society, Ben Schrader has pointed out that the ‘miasma theory’ that disease such as cholera or typhoid were air borne, continued to persist in the country, despite the discovery in 1885 of Salmonella typhi by a US veterinary pathologist Daniel Elmer Salmon[ii] (almost simultaneously with the discovery in 1884 of the cholera bacillus, Vibrio cholerae by the German scientist, Robert Koch.)

Although the fact that the disease was likely to have been the result of contamination of drinking water by leaking cesspits was not yet accepted at this stage, the subsequent construction of municipal water and sewer schemes seems to have had the desired result of a drop in mortality from water-borne diseases in urban New Zealand by the turn of the 20th century.

Typhoid map layout_cropped
Map of central Wellington drawn up by the city’s medical officer, William Chapple, to show the location of typhoid between 1890 and 1892. Source: Wellington City Archives. Reference: 00233:34:1892/740 typhoid map


[i] I am grateful to Matthew Plummer, who brought the map to my attention via Twitter. A downloadable version of the map can be found here:

[ii] Schrader B. (2016) The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840–1920. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books

The featured image is of a butcher’s shop in Wellington, New Zealand, from:

The language of poverty

Slightly late for its inclusion in Mapping Society, I’ve come across this quote from Max Weber, writing about the stockyards of turn of the twentieth century Chicago as a landscape of “lowing, bleating, endless filth”. His likening of the city as akin to ‘‘a human being with its skin peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work”[i] is an example of how language has been used over years to express visceral disgust towards slum areas of cities. Not only is the use of graphic imagery a means to convey the urgency of the problem, (and in this instance to reveal the extent of the problem just as a dissection might do), but also to argue for its solution: whether to cleanse, or to separate it out.

Image result for chicago stockyards horror not:pinterest
Men on horseback herding cattle during the 1904 Stockyards Strike. Photograph by Chicago Daily News, Inc. Source: Chicago History Museum

Separating the unclean from the cleansed is not of course a new idea. David Sibley has written how the Greeks and the Romans saw themselves as standing at the centre of the civilised world, so that the farther away a group was from the imperial hub, the ‘greater was its “vice”’.[ii] Any civilisation that was inferior to the Greek or Roman culture was in effect deviating from the mean – or the norm – in its statistical as well as its physical sense. A map of prostitution, he argues, provides essential information about ‘the social topography of the town. The basic principle of medieval regulation was to designate certain areas to prostitution, either inside or outside the walls, and limit vice strictly to them.’ This was a form of ‘social hygiene’, locating prostitution in poor districts, ‘often close to the river’ or beyond the city walls.[iii]

By drawing boundaries around people other from themselves, European powers defined the separation of the centre from the periphery. This analysis recalls similar ideas put forward by Richard Sennett regarding the treatment of the Jews of Venice. Sennett writes of the ‘fear of touching’ that led the Christian community of Venice five centuries ago to seek to isolate its foreign inhabitants, as if they were ‘isolating a disease that had infected the community . . . with corrupting bodily vices’.

Despite the complexity of the subject, many nineteenth-century texts continued to use powerfully negative imagery to describe the poor, foreigners and other people viewed as marginal to society in emotive, sensual terms – emphasising their moral contagiousness. David Sibley has described how a distinction was made between the ‘pure bourgeois and the defiled proletarian’ in mid-nineteenth century Paris as part of an effort to ‘deodorize utopian city space’ during the reshaping of the city under Baron Haussmann.[iv]

Minority groups are typically not the only people to be marginalised spatially. So too are the poorest classes. Despite the slum clearances that took place throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, the increasing numbers of people moving into the city from the countryside, coupled with a lack of organised city planning, led to the formation of poverty areas constituted by an ‘almost endless intricacy of courts and yards crossing each other . . . like a rabbit warren’.[v] Robin Evans has commented that the campaigns to clear the slums were due to their being viewed in the public eye at the time to be breeding grounds for indecency ‘. . . as if the homes had been one great block of stone eaten by slugs into innumerable small chambers and connecting passages’.[vi] Overcrowding was linked with immorality, while poverty was associated linguistically with the animal (in this instance, the insect) world, suggesting the poor to be non-human in their behaviour. At the same time, likening the city’s morphology – its physical form and layout – to a rabbit warren shows how the city was itself viewed by people as a source of the immorality of its inhabitants.[vii]

No language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels’.[viii] This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well.


[i] “(Weber, 1904, quoted in Nolan J. L. What They Saw in America: Alexis De Tocqueville, Max Weber, G. K. Chesterton, and Sayyid Qutb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2016), p. 72.

[ii] D. Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West (London; New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 50.

[iii] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 87. Bronislaw Geremek has similarly described how the city walls of medieval Paris were seen as a purifying device, defining territory within and without the walls, and placing the prostitutes beyond them. B. Geremek and J. Birrell, The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[iv] Sibley, Geographies of Exclusion, p. 57. For more on Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of Paris, see section on the contemporary mapping of disease, in Chapter 2 of this volume (p. 000).

[v] H. Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor vol. 4 (London: Griffin, Bohn, 1861); Penguin Classics reprint edition, ed. V. Neuburg (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985), pp. 299–300.

[vi] R. Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings: English Housing Reform and the Moralities of Private Space,’ in Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, ed. R. Evans (London: AA Documents 2, 1997, first published 1978). ‘Rookery’ is a term dating from the 1820s to describe a particularly low quality of housing, closely packed with people of the poorest class (it refers to colonies of rooks, which nest in trees in large populations during the breeding season).

[vii] Evans, ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’.

[viii] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.