Published: February 14, 2014

It’s the height of the flu season, and federal agencies have been spending millions of dollars trying to keep this year’s virus under control. But when yellow fever struck Philadelphia in 1793, the entire federal government picked up and left town, leaving stricken individuals to fend for themselves. How and why has the pendulum swung so sharply toward government action? And how have epidemics themselves shaped American history?

In this episode, we trace the shifting role of the state when it comes to coping with epidemics. Where do we draw the line between promoting the public good and protecting individual rights? And how did people understand the causes and experience of disease in their own time? Along with their guests, Ed, Peter, and Brian look at the impact of smallpox on a New York City immigrant neighborhood at the turn of the 20th Century, and explore how diseases ravaged camps of escaped slaves behind Union lines during and after the Civil War. And they share the devastating story of what happened in Philadelphia when soldiers returning from World War I brought the Spanish flu home with them.