The New York Times Book Review
Pox: An American Historyby Michael Willrich
At the turn of the last century, a powerful smallpox epidemic swept the United States from coast to coast. The age-old disease spread swiftly through an increasingly interconnected American landscape: from/b>
The untold story of how America's Progressive-era war on smallpox sparked one of the great civil liberties battles of the twentieth century.
At the turn of the last century, a powerful smallpox epidemic swept the United States from coast to coast. The age-old disease spread swiftly through an increasingly interconnected American landscape: from southern tobacco plantations to the dense immigrant neighborhoods of northern cities to far-flung villages on the edges of the nascent American empire. In Pox, award-winning historian Michael Willrich offers a gripping chronicle of how the nation's continentwide fight against smallpox launched one of the most important civil liberties struggles of the twentieth century.
At the dawn of the activist Progressive era and during a moment of great optimism about modern medicine, the government responded to the deadly epidemic by calling for universal compulsory vaccination. To enforce the law, public health authorities relied on quarantines, pesthouses, and "virus squads"-corps of doctors and club-wielding police. Though these measures eventually contained the disease, they also sparked a wave of popular resistance among Americans who perceived them as a threat to their health and to their rights.
At the time, anti-vaccinationists were often dismissed as misguided cranks, but Willrich argues that they belonged to a wider legacy of American dissent that attended the rise of an increasingly powerful government. While a well-organized anti-vaccination movement sprang up during these years, many Americans resisted in subtler ways-by concealing sick family members or forging immunization certificates. Pox introduces us to memorable characters on both sides of the debate, from Henning Jacobson, a Swedish Lutheran minister whose battle against vaccination went all the way to the Supreme Court, to C. P. Wertenbaker, a federal surgeon who saw himself as a medical missionary combating a deadly-and preventable-disease.
As Willrich suggests, many of the questions first raised by the Progressive-era antivaccination movement are still with us: How far should the government go to protect us from peril? What happens when the interests of public health collide with religious beliefs and personal conscience? In Pox, Willrich delivers a riveting tale about the clash of modern medicine, civil liberties, and government power at the turn of the last century that resonates powerfully today.
The New York Times Book Review
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Meet the Author
Michael Willrich is the award-winning author of City of Courts. He is an associate professor of history at Brandeis University and a former journalist who wrote for The Washington Monthly, City Paper, The New Republic, and other magazines. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
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"Pox: An American History" by Michael Willrich is a non-fiction book which traces how the smallpox vaccine was distributed during major outbreaks. Some of the vaccines were forced onto people which caused an outrage and the question made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The book clearly suggests that an overlooked legacy of American dissent was the antivaccinationists. An increasingly powerful government took on the progressive position that the benefit of all people outweighs the problems of the few and started mandatory vaccination campaigns. An interesting and informative part of American history. To my great surprise, "Pox: An American History" by Michael Willrich is an extremely readable and fast paced book. What I mean by "readable" is that the book does not simply recite facts, figures, laws, high level agenda etc. Yes, it does that as well but by telling stories of individuals on both sides of the debate, such as C.P. Wertenbaker, a federal surgeon who worked tirelessly to combat the deadly and preventable disease. On the other side there is Swedish Lutheran minister Henning Jacobson who took his battle to the Supreme Court battling against vaccination. Those stories, big and small, in context with the overall picture are what make the book a joy to read. Mr. Willrich goes beyond just reciting facts and figures; he also frames the debate around vaccinations. At a time when people believed that vaccinations are some sort of a vast government conspiracy (in a way it was), a cabal of the feds with the drug manufacturers - sounds familiar? The questions which were debated and to some extent still are to this day. What rights can or should the federal government ignore in order to protect us? What is the price we are willing to pay? What happens when the interests of the public at large collide with religion/personal conscience? The accounts detailed in the book are very interesting and I learned a lot from reading them. The research is meticulous but the elegant writing makes the book a joy to read, not only if you are interested in medicine, but also for those interested in history and especially the social classes in the United States.
I enjoyed this book, although at times it was rather slow. What I liked was the challenges faced by the public health community to bring smallpox under control. The tactics and measures taken would not have been tolerated today. However, I am fortunate that the scourage of smallpox was eliminated when I was a child. I was vaccinated, but never knew of any cases in my lifetime, nor anything that my mother and father could recall, too. I was surprised that it was not until 1979 that the last case was identified in Somalia and eliminated. The approach to smallpox was drastic, but in hindsight probably necessary and fortunate for all the lives and suffering saved. This likely will be the last significant disease that will be eradicated. In our modern society, infectious and communicable diseases still strike, despite effective vaccines. My grandmother told me of stories of people she knew growing up who had died of diphtheria, scarlet fever and measles.
I dont like this book at all