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Kathryn Olivarius

Assistant Professor of History
BA, Yale University, History (2011)
MSt, University of Oxford, US History (2013)
DPhil, University of Oxford, History (2017)


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

My first book, Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, Belknap imprint, 2022) concerns yellow fever, immunity, and inequality. It has won the 2023 Frederick Jackson Turner Award for the Best First Book in American History from the Organization of American Historians; the 2023 Prize in American History from the American Historical Association (awarded biennially, formerly the Dunning Prize); the 2023 Simkins Prize from the Southern Historical Association; the 2023 Broussard Prize from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic; the 2023 Kemper and Leila William Prize for the Best Book in Louisiana History from the Louisiana Historical Association and the Historic New Orleans Collection; the 2023 PROSE Award for Excellence in Humanities from the Association of American Publishers; and the 2023 Humanities Book of the Year Award, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

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. In time, a disease heirarchy developed: the city 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).

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); syphilis and shame in the American Civil War and Gilded Age; 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.






Environmental History
The Atlantic World