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Pox: An American History (Penguin History of American Life) and over one million other books are available for Amazon Kindle. Learn more

Pox: An American History (Penguin History of American Life) 1st Edition

19 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594202865
ISBN-10: 1594202869
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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.


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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin History of American Life
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1 edition (March 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202869
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202865
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #527,338 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Man of La Book on 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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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By D_shrink VINE VOICE on 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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