Immunocapital and Yellow Fever with Prof Kathryn Olivarius (Historians in the Time of COVID 4)

Making of a Historian

Jun 2 2020 • 44 mins


In this episode I talk with Stanford Professor Kathryn Olivarius about her research on Yellow Fever in antebellum New Orleans. Yellow Fever was bad. It killed around half of all the people who caught it. Why then did young immigrants to New Orleans seeking to make their fortune sometimes willingly infect themselves with the disease? Olivarius’ research shows that immunity to Yellow Fever became a kind of human capital. People who could demonstrate that they were ‘acclimated’ to Yellow Fever were considered bona fide citizens of the Yellow Fever Zone. Everyone else was just a tourist. If you survived, then it was evidence of your grace—your worthiness in the face of risk—a worthiness that translated to success in the cut-throat world of slave racial capital. It’s a great conversation, one that made me think about the current debate about social distancing and COVID in a brand new way. Thanks to number one listener John Handel for recommending Olivarius’ work to me! Check out Olivarius’ article Immunity, Capital, and Power in Antebellum New Orleans in the AHR. And keep your eye out for her book out next year Necropolis: Disease Power and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom.