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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 smallpox epidemic swept the United States from coast to coast. In this gripping account, award- winning historian Michael Willrich chronicles the government's fight against the outbreak and the ensuing clash of modern medicine, civil liberties, and state power. Pox introduces readers to memorable characters on both sides of the debate-from the doctors and club- wielding police charged with enforcing the law to vaccinate every citizen to the anti-vaccinationists, who stood up for their individual freedoms but were often dismissed as misguided cranks. Riveting and thoroughly researched, Pox delivers a masterful examination of progressive-era history that resonates powerfully today.
About 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.
What People are Saying About This
"Pox is a scholarly rarity: an important and deeply-researched book that speaks not only to historians, but to any thoughtful reader. Michael Willrich has rescued and elegantly re-created a neglected episode in American history. In clear yet nuanced prose, he has made a lasting contribution to our understanding of the complex and tangled relationship between the powers and responsibilities of the state and the autonomy of individual men and women."--(Charles Rosenberg, author of The Cholera Years)
"In one of American history's ironies, a nation fiercely supportive of individual liberty also developed a public health movement that may have become the most violently invasive of individual rights in the world. These tendencies collided at the turn of the 20th century, when a smallpox epidemic spread through much of the country. Michael Willrich tells the story of Americans who fought for liberty from vaccination while others were vaccinated by brutal force at the hands of New York Police, Texas Rangers, and even the U.S. Cavalry. A torrent of litigation followed, some of it carefully balanced, much of it very unwise, and it still reverberates in American jurisprudence. These were hard cases, but in the highly skilled hands of Michael Willrich, hard cases make great history. We all have much to learn from this excellent book."--(David Hackett Fischer, author of Champlain's Dream and Washington's Crossing)
"Michael Willrich has written a fascinating, fast-paced story of America's last major smallpox epidemic. Pox is a tale of race, class, violence, political resistance, intergovernmental conflict, and, most importantly, the age-old tension between individual rights and government regulation for the common good. Writing with passion and verve, Willrich weaves riveting anecdotes and vivid portraits of previously unknown players into a compelling historical narrative with resonance for today's debate over the constitutionality of federal health care reform. This is history at its best written by a master of his craft."--(Michael J. Klarman, author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights)
"In Pox, Michael Willrich melds meticulous research with elegant writing to create a richly-textured social history about a horrible disease at the charged intersection of science, politics, race, and culture. Willrich deftly traces the great clashes between government epidemiologists and civil libertarians at an uneasy time when a burgeoning American Empire was field-testing the public consequences of germ theory. After reading Pox, you'll never think the same way again about the now all-but-mechanical ritual of rolling up your shirtsleeve for a vaccine needle."--(Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"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