Published: September 21, 2012

When yellow fever struck Philadelphia in 1793, the entire federal government picked up and left town, leaving individuals to fend for themselves. A hundred years later, the pendulum had swung sharply in the other direction. Health workers took extreme measures to contain disease – imprisoning the sick, burning entire districts, and vaccinating resistant citizens at gunpoint.

In this hour of BackStory we trace the trajectory of that change and examine 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? How did people understand the causes and experience of disease in their own time? The History Guys look at a drama that unfolded in a New York City immigrant neighborhood when smallpox hit. We’ll also explore how diseases ravaged camps of escaped slaves behind Union lines during and after the Civil War. And contributor Catherine Moore shares the devastating story of what happened in Philadelphia when soldiers returning from World War I brought the Spanish flu home with them.