Kathryn Meyer Olivarius

Assistant Professor of History
Kathryn Meyer Olivarius

I am an historian of the nineteenth-century United States, primarily interested in the antebellum South, Greater Caribbean, slavery, capitalism, and disease.

My forthcoming book, Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, Belknap imprint, 2022) concerns yellow fever, immunity, and inequality. During the nineteenth-century, epidemic yellow fever struck New Orleans every second or third summer, killing up to ten percent of the city’s population. This virus was shrouded in mystery. There was no cure, no inoculation, no conclusive evidence of disease transmission, and no satisfactory explanation for why it killed some while leaving others healthy. It was moreover, a sudden and miserable way to die, with victims vomiting up partly coagulated blood, roughly the consistency and color of coffee grounds. The only way to protect oneself from the scourge was to bet “acclimated,” that is fall sick with the disease, survive, and gain lifetime immunity. About half of all people died in the acclimating process.

Yellow fever was no great leveler in antebellum New Orleans. Quite the opposite, in fact, as disease did not attack and destroy existing class and racial structures; it became part of their very foundation. As many historians have shown, New Orleans was an outlier among American cities, characterized by its Caribbean-esque tripartite social structure of whites, gens de couleur libres, and Black slaves. But as epidemics increased in frequency and ferocity in the six decades before the Civil War, this city also became stratified between those whites who possessed immunity to yellow fever (the “acclimated”), those who remained vulnerable to the virus (the “unacclimated”), and those whose immunity status could only socially and economically benefit others (Black slaves and most free people of color).

These labels mattered. They mattered because on which side of the immunity divide a person landed measurably impacted their lives and prospects. Here, a white person was virtually required to survive yellow fever to enter the elite. And once acclimated, the city’s Creole and American merchants, planters, and enslavers embraced epidemic yellow fever as a blessing and not a curse, finding that it could “solve” any number of political, financial, and social problems that would have otherwise burdened the kind of hegemony and profits they sought. Betraying their hardened attitudes to human life—evidenced in their indifference to the suffering of enslaved people—local elites embraced yellow fever risk, mobilized disease for discriminatory ends, and used their own alleged immunity as proof that they deserved success, consolidating their power atop the cotton market, the most lucrative sector of antebellum America’s export economy. In taking advantage of the diseased reality around them, New Orleans’ elites spearheaded policies markedly different than other major American port cities, policies that systematically heightened inequality, enriched themselves, enhanced white supremacy and wealth, undercut the majority, and etched epidemiological discrimination into law.

In this system of class rule, what I call immunocapitalism, disease was endowed with spiritual purpose. It provided ideological legitimation for vast inequality. Elites insisted that newcomers had to brave the disease alone. Unacclimated “strangers” were considered outsiders—undeserving, untested, effeminate, and illegitimate. They could not get certain jobs, live in certain neighborhoods, vote, or socialize with the acclimated. Some elites even argued that yellow fever was a social panacea because it efficiently weeded out lesser men. The claim, made by white elites, of Black people’s “perfect” and natural immunity became the backbone of an increasingly elaborate—if strained—justification for widespread and permanent racial slavery. Only inherently immune Black people, the logic went, could safely cultivate epidemiologically fraught spaces immediately around New Orleans. Black slavery was classified as positively natural, even humanitarian, for it protected the health of whites, insulating them from labor and spaces that would kill them. White elites thus used yellow fever to justify the expendability of certain white laboring lives and the exploitation of enslaved Black ones, reinscribing an already obvious message: that in New Orleans, certain people were decidedly less equal than others.

I am also interested in historical notions of consent (sexual or otherwise); slave revolts in the United States and the Caribbean; anti- and pro-slavery thought; class and ethnicity in antebellum America; the history of life insurance and environmental risk; comparative slave systems; technology and slavery; the Haitian Revolution; and boosterism in the American West.

Born and raised in New York, Washington D.C., and London, I earned my BA in history (cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) from Yale University in 2011. I received an MSt in US History (with distinction) in 2013 and a DPhil in History in 2017 from the University of Oxford. Before joining the Stanford faculty, I was a Past and Present postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London.

I am accepting graduate students who are interested in all aspects of early/nineteenth-century United States history. More information on the department's graduate program in United States history, designed to answer most common questions about the application process and the current state of the program, can be found here.



Environmental History
The Atlantic World