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Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 [Hardcover]

by Elizabeth A. Fenn
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)


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Book Description

October 20, 2001 0809078201 978-0809078202 1st
The astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the War of Independence began, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone in North America.

By 1776, when military action and political ferment increased the movement of people and microbes, the epidemic worsened. Fenn's remarkable research shows us how smallpox devastated the American troops at Québec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston. Soon the disease affected the war in Virginia, where it ravaged slaves who had escaped to join the British forces. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington had to decide if and when to attempt the risky inoculation of his troops. In 1779, while Creeks and Cherokees were dying in Georgia, smallpox broke out in Mexico City, whence it followed travelers going north, striking Santa Fe and outlying pueblos in January 1781. Simultaneously it moved up the Pacific coast and east across the plains as far as Hudson's Bay.

The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-helath crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn's innovative work shows how this mega-tragedy was met and what its consequences were for America.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this engaging, creative history, Fenn (Natives and Newcomers) addresses an understudied aspect of the American Revolution: the intimate connection between smallpox and the war. Closed-in soldiers' quarters and jails, as well as the travel demands of fighting, led to the outbreak of smallpox in 1775. George Washington ended an outbreak in the north by inoculating American soldiers (the colonists had a weaker immune system against smallpox than the British). Indeed, Fenn makes a plausible case that without Washington's efforts, the colonists might have lost the war. Despite the future president's success at "outflanking the enemy" of smallpox, however, the disease spread on the Southern front, where there was "chaos, connections, and a steady stream of victims." Even as the war ended, the increased contact between populations spread the disease as far as Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. The outbreak eventually killed an estimated 125,000 North Americans more than five times the number of colonial soldiers who died (to her credit, Fenn admits that these numbers are inexact). Along the way, Fenn, who teaches history at George Washington University, recounts the fate of many blacks freed under a British "emancipation proclamation" of sorts; promised their freedom if they fought for the British, several thousand ex-slaves perished from smallpox. She also traces the disease's effect on the North American balance of power by devastating some Native American tribes in the 1780s. Long after the war, whites kept Native Americans passive with explicit threats of infection. Fenn has placed smallpox on the historical map and shown how intercultural contact can have dire bacterial consequences.38 b&w illus. not seen by PW.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Many books have been written about smallpox, but few have this volume's scholarly focus. Fenn (history, George Washington Univ.) relies heavily on primary documents to illustrate the disease's devastating impact on the political and military history of North America during the Revolutionary War. Excerpts from diaries, letters, presidential papers, and church and burial records provide first-hand accounts of the spread of this disease. The result is an extensive discussion of the role of smallpox in the Colonial era, but the book's main strength is in the detailed analysis of smallpox among Native Americans, from Mexico to Canada. Fenn's study of the historical horrors of this devastating disease nicely complements Jonathan Tucker's Scourge (LJ 8/15/01), which considers what the future may be like if smallpox returns. Highly recommended for academic and medical libraries. Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib.
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hill and Wang; 1st edition (October 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0809078201
  • ISBN-13: 978-0809078202
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #867,193 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Following the smallpox trail January 27, 2002
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I first read of the devastation that smallpox wrought on the Continental Army while reading David McCullough's terrific biography, "John Adams" and was lucky enough to have seen, subsequently, "Pox Americana" author Elizabeth Fenn delve more deeply into the topic on cable TV's C-Span "Booknotes." Professor Fenn has written a well-researched book on smallpox....one that is not only informative, but generally easily readable.
This is really two books. The first half covers the trail of Variola (smallpox) transmission throughout the course of the American Revolution and in this first half, Ms. Fenn writes with a prose that captures the reader with graphic details of the harshness of the disease itself, the suffering of those who were unlucky enough to have caught it, and the fear that became a constant in the lives of not only those who fought militarily but those in the civilian ranks as well. She gives us facts about how the smallpox incubates, how long it takes to run its course and how it was so easily transmittable. The reader can almost hear the agony of those inflicted and see the smallpox spread over their bodies. Ms. Fenn points to a tie-in (also in the McCullough book) that it is very likely that the British had tried to use the transmission of smallpox from their more disease-tolerant armies to the weaker American ones as an example of the first "germ warfare" thrust upon our newly independent country. The fact that George Washington had the timely sense (and good fortune) to inoculate his army during the winter of 1777, thus proving it to be a turning point in the war, is a remarkable story in itself....not one I'm sure that most students learn in school!
The narrative in the second half of "Pox Americana" is weaker. Ms.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another side to history! December 12, 2001
Format:Hardcover
If we think that America has never known an infectious epidemic other than the Great Influenza after World War I, we'd be wise to consider the smallpox pandemic that swept the length & breadth of the North American continent just as the Revolutionary fever did.
Pox American: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 is a fascinating way to learn about the early years of our nation when cultures collided on this continent. Each chapter starts with a story of one man - a ship's captain exploring the Straits of Juan de Fuca or a New England volunteer in the Continental Army or a missionary riding the dusty Southwest trails. From these individual's stories we can see scope of the virus' reach. With pictographs, maps, charts & photographs, this author brings this contagion close to home!
Sometimes the dread disease was an invisible passenger upon an unsuspecting carrier that would arrive in a tribe of otherwise healthy people & within weeks, the entire community would be dead. Sometimes it was intentionally sent forth by our wily forefathers to do their deadly work.
Smallpox haunted our ancestors from coast to coast; from Russian promyshlenniki (hunters & traders) who first explored & then enslaved the residents of Alaska to America's breadbasket, where entire native communities of farmers & hunter-gatherers were wiped out in weeks to Hudson Bay, New Orleans, The South as well as Mexico City.
Elizabeth Fenn writes: "The pestilence can teach us the ways in which other upheavels - native warfare, missionization, the fur trade, and the acquisition of horses and guns...reshaped human life on the North American continent. The movement of the virus from one human being to another shows us how people actually lived in the late eighteenth century.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended by nervegas.com October 31, 2001
Format:Hardcover
Pox is a truly scholarly work based on primary historical documents. It is obvious that it was a true labor of love by Prof. Fenn.
The epidemic that Fenn studied is a particularly valuable in understanding a little known area of the American Revolutionary War (though her scope covers the entire North American Continet).
Many know that the British had released smallpox on French alligned tribes seiging Ft. Pitt during the French Indian War. Less known was the great concern that General George Washington had about smallpox during the American Revolution. Elsewhere, it has been described that the main reason the seige of Boston lasted as long as it did was due to smallpox, and that the Continental Army was the first army in world history to require compulsory immunization - force-wide.
Prof. Fenn paints an even darker picture. It could be said that the events with smallpox during the Revolutionary War was America's first biological emergency. She clearly documents cases that appear to be obvious attempts by the British to infect COntinental Forces with smallpox at Boston, and later in Virginia. The Virginia case is most appauling as the British turned freed slaves (loyalists) into their delivery vehicle.
The failure to innoculate forces was cited as the main reason the Continental Army failed to take Canada. The army literally melted away, with replacements being taken down as soon as they arrived.
Eventually, 1777, the Continental Army required that all new recruits go through innoculation stations before joining the army.
The remainder of the book (2/3rds) describes the impact of smallpox on other communities in North America. The impact on the tribes around Vancouver at the time clearly documents how devistating disease can be to a civilization.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars best medical history ever read
Purchased for research on a paper regarding Washington's strategic decision to inoculate there Continental Army against smallpox. Best medical history work I have ever read.
Published 5 months ago by Walter M Matthews, MD
5.0 out of 5 stars Bought used, Very pleased
Even though the description suggested it may or may not have had highlights, marks, etc. I bought it anyway for the sake of college, and i was more than pleased with the product. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Kelsey Marie
2.0 out of 5 stars interesting topic rendered dull
There are some good reads on the topic of epidemiology - McNeil's Plagues and Peoples or Jared Diamond or Kenneth Kipple or Preston. This writer just isn't that good.
Published 8 months ago by Stevi Stephens
1.0 out of 5 stars Boring!
I was very interested in the subject of the book, but the author was so phenomenally boring, I couldn't read it. Very dry and academic.
Published 8 months ago by E. Papciak
4.0 out of 5 stars A Very Interesting Take on an old Nemesis
I found Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana to be an excellent read. It isn't very often that I really get pulled into a page turning history book. Read more
Published 9 months ago by gloine36
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
Fascinating story and written in a very entertaining way. It is always amazing to learn about a pivotal event in history that one
has never heard of...
Published 10 months ago by Autodidact
3.0 out of 5 stars A good work of historical research but a bit of a slog to read...
This is an example of how hard it is to write history for the general public. I assume that this book was not first written for the general public but became so out of its... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Who Knew?
Well written and very interesting. I had no idea the immensity of the pox epidemic. The amount of research it took to string the path of pox was stunning.
Published 14 months ago by Mom of 4
5.0 out of 5 stars Only half way through
My graduate work was in the History of Medicine, so my like/dislike really does not matter. The documentation looks valid and the author has a fluid style.
Published 14 months ago by S. S. Swindler
5.0 out of 5 stars Pox Americana
This was a definitive work on the smallpox epidemic in America at the time of the Revolution. The implications of the pox on American history is important.
Published 16 months ago by Jeanette Alsheimer
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