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Following the smallpox trail
on January 27, 2002
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. Fenn, while continuing to do a superb in-depth job at following the disease around North America (mostly through Indian tribes), loses her descriptive appeal. The book now becomes more of an encyclopedia of numbers of deaths, which tribe could have passed it to which other one, and so on. At points we are inundated by the vast numbers of tribes and without the help of some elementary-looking maps, the reader can quite easily get lost. Still, the author has put forth her research at a compelling depth. I wonder now that Ms. Fenn has written this book, is there another book in her future which keeps the more fascinating Revolutionary War aspect and includes all different types of diseases that may have hit the colonists? She would be just the one to write it.