Image from the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, Box 51 Folder 27.
Move over Avengers. Move over X-Men. There is a new team of superheroes in town and they are gearing up to save the world. They are the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission!
Most people associate comic books with the exploits of fictional superheroes like the Avengers and the X-Men, but comics have been used to tell other kinds of stories. In the Philip S. Hench Yellow Fever Collection, we have one comic that tells the story of how the U.S. Yellow Fever Commission proved that mosquitoes transmit yellow fever.
The comic was published in 1941 in the first issue of True Comics—a comic book series that was based on the idea that “Truth is stranger and a thousand times more thrilling than FICTION.” The creators of the series used the comic book medium to retell historical and contemporary non-fiction stories for young audiences.
James Carroll as comic book hero and in real life. Images from the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, Box 51 Folder 27 and Box 76 Folder 90.
While the people at True Comics may have believed that truth is more thrilling than fiction, at times they had difficulty distinguishing between the two. In the yellow fever comic there are a number of inaccuracies. For one, the figures in the comic often look nothing like their real-life counterparts. In True Comics, the yellow fever commission’s James Carroll has blond hair and is clean cut. This image of Carroll would not be out of place in the typical superhero comic book of the 1940s and it may have suited the tastes and expectations of True Comics readers. However, as the photograph illustrates here, this is not how James Carroll appeared in real life.
In addition to the artistic liberties that were taken, there are other inaccuracies and omissions. The comic tells readers that men from the U.S. army volunteered to be infected with yellow fever to help scientists learn about the transmission of the disease. This is true, but it fails to credit others who volunteered for the study including Cuban civilians and a U.S. nurse named Clara Maas.
Do these and other inaccuracies diminish the importance of the yellow fever comic as a historical document? Well, no they don’t. The comic doesn’t give an accurate account of the yellow fever experiments, but it is nevertheless still an important piece of historical evidence. Researchers can study it to learn more about how the yellow fever experiments were portrayed in U.S. popular culture during the 1940s. More broadly, the comic can then be used to help answer questions about the changing relationships between medicine, society, and culture in the United States during the twentieth century.
To learn more about the U.S. Yellow Fever Commission, we invite you to visit the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Exhibit and Collection online or visit the historical collections department at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library. Also, you can read the entire yellow fever comic and other stories in True Comics online at a site hosted by Michigan State University.
Walter Reed salutes you! Image from the Philip S. Hench Walter Reed Yellow Fever Collection, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, Box 51 Folder 27.