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Pox: An American History (Penguin History of American Life) [Hardcover]

by Michael Willrich
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)


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Book Description

March 31, 2011 1594202869 978-1594202865 1
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.


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Today's controversies over vaccinations pale beside the pitched battles fought at the turn of the 20th century, to judge by this probing work. Historian Willrich (City of Courts) revisits the smallpox epidemic that ravaged the United States from 1898 to 1904 and sparked a showdown between the burgeoning Progressive-era regulatory regime and Americans fearful of the new Leviathan state and the specter of "state medicine." Anxious to stamp out the contagion, public health officials in the South quarantined African-Americans in detention camps if they were suspected of carrying the disease and vaccinated others at gunpoint; in New York "paramilitary vaccination squads" raided immigrant tenements, forcibly inoculating residents and dragging infected children off to pesthouses; their coercive methods sparked occasional riots and lawsuits that helped remake constitutional law. Willrich sees merit on both sides: draconian public health measures saved thousands of lives, but resisters did have legitimate concerns about vaccine safety and side effects, racial targeting and bodily integrity. He does tend to romanticize anti-vaccine activists, whose movement he associates with feminism, free speech, and abolitionism, styling them as "libertarian radicals" engaging in "intimate acts of civil disobedience." Still, his lucid, well-written, empathetic study of a fascinating episode shows why the vaccine issue still pricks the American conscience. Photos. (Apr. 4)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: Penguin History of American Life
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; 1 edition (March 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202869
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202865
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #749,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Readable and Interesting April 2, 2011
Format:Hardcover
"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?
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Governmental Necessity Versus Individual Rights June 7, 2011
Format:Hardcover
The generations that had had smallpox vaccination scars upon their arms are dying off. That scar might have served as something like a passport to get them into a new country, or it might have allowed them to enter school. The scars aren't seen now because inoculation with smallpox vaccine is no longer necessary; humanity may be rightly proud that it has eliminated what once had been a deadly scourge. The battle was not easily won, and in the United States, it was fought not just against the virus, but against those who for often understandable reasons felt that it was not the government's business to stick germs into them. It was the epidemic of 1898 to 1903 that defined the government's role, and this is the subject of _Pox: An American History_ (The Penguin Press) by professor of history Michael Willrich. There is plenty of medical history here, as doctors and civic health care officers confront a fearful plague, but more importantly, there are accounts of the thousands of Americans who were against vaccination and the effect their efforts had upon the laws and attitudes that still affect us. Willrich's detailed and meticulous history confines itself to the events of more than a hundred years ago (although a short epilogue catches us up to the current times) and is valuable for the insight it gives on the necessity and the limitations of governmental and police power instituted for the general medical betterment of society, issues which we are still arguing about today.

Community vaccination programs were slapdash and poorly targeted, so sometimes the feds were called in to help. The Marine-Hospital Service would dispatch doctors to afflicted towns to vaccinate those who didn't have the pox and to quarantine the sick.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars May the Pox NOT Be Upon YOU! April 11, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a story of medical science and public health officials both battling fear, ignorance, stubbornness to new scientific advances and yet political and social engineering correctness of its day, all in the name of finding a way to treat and/or prevent smallpox more technically called variola. The expression MAY THE POX BE UPON YOU was considered one of the worse curses of earlier days and a play upon the title of this review.

This is a 422 page book with 73 pages of cites, notes, and index, so is well researched and not casually written, yet it reads like a wonderful medical and social novel. The book opens with trying to pin down the beginning of the NYC smallpox outbreak at the turn of the 20th Century. It ascribes one of the early documented cases to Madeline Lyon a 12yo girl diagnosed on 11/27/1900 the Tuesday before Thanksgiving of that year.

Over the centuries, smallpox was considered to be the deadliest contagious disease in the world with some 300 million deaths through the 20th century and an average mortality rate of 25-30%, but which could vary from a mere 10% to a staggering 60% depending on the strain involved. This struggle for a prevention or cure also turned out to be one of the first and one of the most important struggles for civil liberties regarding the fight against mandatory vaccination for the good of the populace as a whole, similar to the feelings some have about childhood vaccines today. Around the turn of the 20th Century and even somewhat later the disease was thought to be brought on by outsiders and predominantly male Negroes. And it is true that Blacks and males suffered in disproportionate degrees, but it was due primarily to their proximate living conditions in labor camps of the day and not due to race or gender.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Very detailed work
This is about the conflicts in the history of immunization and it still goes on. The author did a great job with the research and writing.
Published 8 months ago by Jeanajoan
3.0 out of 5 stars Very slow moving and detailed
This was required reading for my daughter's college course and I picked it up as it looked interesting. However, I found it very repetitive and detailed to a fault. Read more
Published 9 months ago by taximom212
1.0 out of 5 stars Hard to get through
Hard to get through. Interesting but just wasnt easy to read. Not captivating. I lost it in a hotel. Wasnt too fussed about it. Read more
Published 10 months ago by MSB
4.0 out of 5 stars A pretty interesting book
By the close of the nineteenth century, Americans had begun to forget about the true horrors of smallpox epidemics. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Kurt A. Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars POX
This book was recommended to me by a niece. It is an interesting read. Never realized that smallpox was so rampant in the United States. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Always Reading
5.0 out of 5 stars Medical history as social history. Accessible and well-researched.
Part social history, part epidemiology, Pox turns a mountain of research into a haunting, gripping account of disease and social change. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Nathaniel Lane
2.0 out of 5 stars Drags quite a bit
I do a lot of reading into novel and re-emerging infections. This book falls about in the middle of the pack for interest and research. Readability is a bit different, however. Read more
Published on January 17, 2012 by RUHU
5.0 out of 5 stars BOOK MONSTER
I LOVE BOOKS WRITTEN ABOUT HISTORY,DISASTERS,DISEASES,ETC. THIS BOOK CAUGHT MY ATTENTION RIGHT AWAY AND HELD IT. JUST ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF GOVERNMENT AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS.
Published on November 18, 2011 by BOOKMONSTER
5.0 out of 5 stars an excellent read - scholarly, yet highly engaging and beautifully...
This book provides a terrific description of the social context of the Jacobson case, as well as a detailed account of each stage of the litigation as it wended its way through the... Read more
Published on September 9, 2011 by legal history student
5.0 out of 5 stars This is the way history should be taught.
How many of us limped through high school American History classes desperately tryingto STAY AWAKE?? Read more
Published on July 5, 2011 by D. M. Knoell
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