Irish Fever

An Archaeology of Illness, Injury, and Healing in New York City, 1845–1875

  • Author(s): Linn, Meredith
  • Series:
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2024-01-03
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Printed Case: Price $60.00 | Buy Now

“Meredith Linn has created an original and sophisticated argument highlighting how people blend cultural knowledge to navigate shifting social notions and medical theories concerning health and disease. Linn tells a compelling story, through rigorous research, of how the complex world of medicine, disease, and wellness developed and how disease was perceived at points in time directly impacting the lives of and choices made by working poor immigrant families. Her research and interpretations help us to better understand the history of physical health and well being in alienated and less than desirable living conditions and raises important questions for all archaeologists studying issues of global health and disease within immigrant communities.”
—Stephen A. Brighton, associate professor and associate chair, Department of Anthropology, University of Maryland

During the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century, about one million Irish people perished from starvation and disease, while more than two million fled the country in fear and desperation, with some 850,000 landing in New York City. After a difficult journey, many found themselves impoverished, taking dangerous jobs, and battling miserable living conditions in an unfamiliar urban landscape. These circumstances resulted in high rates of illness, injury, and death compared with other immigrant groups and native-born Americans.

In this profound study, Meredith B. Linn explores three kinds of afflictions—typhus fever, tuberculosis, and work-related injuries—that disproportionately affected Irish immigrants, tracing how existing medical ideas and technologies intersected with American prejudices to further conspire against this once culturally distinct group. Linn makes a compelling case for how Americans’ interpretations of the visible bodily changes wrought by typhus fever and injuries contributed to essentializing and dehumanizing biases against these new immigrants, while tuberculosis—with its symptoms of fatigue, pallor, and emaciation—enabled Americans to see individuals beyond stereotypes and to recognize the equal humanity of the Irish.

Drawing upon extensive archaeological records, folkloric sources, and historical documents, Linn presents what she terms a “visceral historical archaeology”—a perspective rooted in historical archaeology and medical anthropology—to illuminate the experiences of these immigrants. She investigates their health-related ideas and practices and reveals their efforts to heal themselves using popular remedies from Ireland and several new American commodities. Laden with heartrending stories from real working-class Irish and their American doctors, this richly illustrated book provides new perspectives about urban experience in the context of the Irish diaspora and invites contemplation about how illness, injury, and healing have affected the lives and reception of newcomers to the US.

MEREDITH B. LINN is assistant professor of historical archaeology at the Bard Graduate Center. She is coauthor, with Nan A. Rothschild and Diana diZerega Wall, of An Archaeological Investigation of the Seneca Village Site.