Immunocapital: Disease, Power, and Inequality in the Antebellum Cotton Kingdom

Based on Olivarius’s current book project, this talk discusses the impact of yellow fever in New Orleans in the antebellum period and how disease and immunity became agents of inequality. Yellow fever killed upwards of eight percent of antebellum New Orleans' population each summer. It was terrifying: there was do cure, no inoculation, no conclusive evidence of disease transmission, and no satisfactory proof for why it killed some while leaving others symptomatic. It was, moreover, a sudden and horrible way to die, with victims famously vomiting up thick black vomit at the end of their illness. About half of all nineteenth-century victims died; the other half became "acclimated" or immune for life. The Cotton Kingdom was a slave society where whites dominated free people of color and enslaved people through legally sanctioned violence. But another invisible hierarchy came to co-mingle with the racial order; white “acclimated citizens” stood atop the social pyramid, followed by white “unacclimated strangers,” followed by everyone else. Here, the acclimated wielded their immunity at every turn, making epidemiological discrimination a major form of bias in this already unequal society.


Kathryn Olivarius, Assistant Professor of History, Stanford University


This event is part of the Facing Inequality series.

Open to media

Sponsored By:

GW Interdisciplinary Inequality Series, Institute for International Economic Policy