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Thomas Jefferson, Yellow Fever, and Land Planning for Public Health

Jefferson envisioned land-use policies that he hoped would mitigate epidemics – and other urban evils.

A yellow-fever epidemic in 1793 hit Philadelphia, a city then of some 50,000 persons. Forty percent of the people fled Philadelphia. That noted, still some 10 percent of the citizens, some 5,000 persons, perished during the epidemic, which ceased when a frost killed the mosquitoes that were carrying the virus. Years later and while president of the United States, Jefferson had this to say in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush (23 Sept. 1800): “The yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in our nation, & I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. True, they nourish some of the elegant arts, but the useful ones can thrive elsewhere, and less perfection in the others, with more health, virtue & freedom, would be my choice.”

The sentiments expressed by Jefferson have typically been construed by scholars—and it is easy to understand why that is the case—as evidence of Jefferson’s heartlessness, or of an extreme anti-urbanism. They certainly resonate today with ill-considered proposals today by President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to restrain physically the travel of urbanites in large cities, or by some on the far right to allow cities to collapse under the Coronavirus contagion.

Yet it would be a mistake to reject Jefferson out of hand as a source of historical wisdom about the effects of pandemics on urbanites.


Jefferson, ever sanguine, was merely trying to make the best of a wretched scenario in his letter to Rush. He continues to Rush, “Providence has in fact so established the order of things, as that most evils are the means of producing some good.” His optimism was grounded on a political philosophy that was liberty-loving, people-centered, equalitarian, science-friendly, progressive, and agrarian. Being agrarian, it was fundamentally anticity.

Yet given the human costs of urban contagion, Jefferson gave thought to land-use policies that he hoped would mitigate epidemics alongside other urban evils. Ever mathematical, distrustful of the physicians of his time, and interested in building, Jefferson even proposed an innovative design for cities—a checker-board pattern—whose main function was to prevent disease. In a letter to Comte de Volney (8 Feb. 1805), Jefferson elaborates through use of a diagram: “Let the black squares only be building squares, and the white ones be left open, in turf and trees. Every square of houses will be surrounded by four open squares, and every house will front an open square. The atmosphere of such a town would be like that of the country, insusceptible of the miasmata which produce yellow fever.” The checkerboard design was likely something Jefferson had in mind since his days in Paris, when he observed innovations in the design, function, and placement of hospitals to help the sick.