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The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling the Smallpox Epidemic Hardcover

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult; 1 edition (June 2, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0525947361
  • ISBN-13: 978-0525947363
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,159,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Long before vaccination for smallpox was developed in Europe in the 1790s, people in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Africa knew that small amounts of live smallpox virus injected under the skin would induce a mild form of the disease that rendered a person immune from full-blown smallpox. In her intriguing book, Carrell, a writer for Smithsonian magazine, switches between the stories of two courageous people in early 18th-century England and America who believed passionately in this procedure, called variolation. While living in Turkey, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, herself disfigured by the disease, had her son inoculated. When she convinced her physician to inoculate her daughter during a smallpox epidemic in London in 1721, public opinion was vehemently against her but, after the procedure appeared to work, physicians persuaded King George I to let them experiment on prisoners who agreed to submit to variolation in return for pardons. In Boston, also ravaged by smallpox in 1721, Zabdiel Boylston, a physician who had survived the disease, learned of variolation from slaves and successfully inoculated his own children. The authorities ordered Boylston to stop the practice, and outraged citizens even tried to kill him, but he persisted, encouraged by a few believers, including the influential Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather. In Boston, as in London, most people who underwent the procedure didn't get full-blown cases of smallpox, and variolation was finally accepted as the only way to protect against the disease before vaccination with cowpox, a benign virus, was developed in the 1790s. Carrell's novelistic treatment of this story, which concludes with an account of the friendship that developed between Lady Mary and Boylston when he visited London in 1725, is engaging in spite of an overabundance of fabricated conversations and scenes that slow the action.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

The severe epidemics of smallpox that swept through London and Boston in 1721 and 1722 caused scarring, blindness, and death. In Boston, almost 6000 people (out of a total population of 11,000) contracted smallpox, and more than 800 died. Doctors battled hopelessly against "the speckled monster" and applied the humoral therapies of bloodletting, blistering, and the so-called cool regimen, advocated by the distinguished English physician Thomas Sydenham. Into these geographically separate but similar scenes of chaotic misery stepped two unlikely heroes: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a highly intelligent, beautiful but pockmarked, English aristocrat, and Zabdiel Boylston, a locally trained colonial doctor. Lady Mary and Boylston promoted the new, exotic, and potentially dangerous practice of inoculation. (Figure) Inoculation was a folk practice that had been learned from Turkish women and African slaves, two groups generally deemed unreliable by both Europeans and colonial Americans. The practice involved taking a small amount of matter from a pustule of an infected person and inserting it into a scratch made in the skin of a healthy person. Usually a mild case developed and the infected person was thus protected for life from a severe case of natural smallpox. But the procedure was risky: contemporaries calculated that 1 of 91 persons infected in this manner died from the disease. Worse still, inoculated smallpox was contagious, something early inoculators soon discovered. But the horrible symptoms and the risks of dying from natural smallpox led Lady Mary and Boylston, among others, to try inoculation. Their conviction that this new procedure was safe and efficacious was dramatically demonstrated by their courage in administering it first to their own children. Numerous historians have written about this momentous revolution in medical practice. Inoculation laid the groundwork for vaccination, immunology, and medical statistics. Carrell's book, The Speckled Monster, adds a new twist to the topic; it is a fictional account based on extensive historical research (the subtitle of the book is "a historical tale"). Her narrative begins slowly but quickly picks up the pace as it interweaves events on both sides of the Atlantic and suggests their mutual influence. It is unapologetically heroic: Lady Mary and Boylston triumphed despite the substantial odds and obstacles against them. Lady Mary took on the formidable London medical establishment, whereas Boylston contended with providential clerics and foreign-trained physicians (particularly the cantankerous Scot, William Douglass). Both were threatened with mob violence. In sweeping and dramatic strokes, Carrell paints the ostracism Boylston endured as he made his rounds through colonial Boston; in England, Lady Mary suffered public criticism for daring to put her children deliberately in harm's way. The advantage of historical fiction is that it allows the author to recreate private conversations and psychological motivations that are often unavailable to historical analysis. Carrell has done this well, vividly reconstructing the horrors of smallpox and the hostility that often attends innovation. Her descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells envelop the reader in a tangible and immediate past. That said, Carrell freely admits to fabricating events and dialogue for which there is no evidence -- the most extreme instance (but one befitting a heroic narrative) is the contrived meeting and friendship between her two heroes, Lady Mary and Boylston, in London. The result is an enjoyable tale, but the historical truth is buried in the endnotes. Andrea Rusnock, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

More About the Author

Author of novels and history. Writing curve: smallpox, Shakespeare, art. Currently at work on historical fiction about my favorite painting, Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding.

I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. Early on, my fallback career choices were ballerina and astronaut. Much later, I thought I'd become a Shakespeare professor. Through some strange twists and turns, I've circled back to writing.

I was born in Washington, D.C., but I grew up in Arizona. I have a Ph.D. in English from Harvard, along with undergraduate degrees from Oxford and Stanford. I was first pulled into studying literature by the Arthurian legend, and later by Norse sagas, Tolkien, and Shakespeare; my father jokes that I majored in fairy tales. It was something of a surprise to find myself writing thrillers; now I'm turning to historical fiction. Before I began to write books full time, I taught literature and writing at Harvard. Later, I was the classical music critic for the Arizona Daily Star. I've also written a number of pieces for the Smithsonian Magazine.

Here's what I think about writing: Storytelling should be an adventure, not just the stringing-together of other people's adventures. On the trail of stories, I have: rappelled from a six-story tower using an emergency hand-tied halter (while writing about the training of firefighters); tracked mountain lions on mule-back through the mountain range Geronimo used as home base and hideout; held Yo-Yo Ma's cello; ridden the roller-coaster ride of a professional cutting horse (herding cattle); and posed for David Hockney on a BBC set while stuffed into a medieval gown originally made for Star Trek, with a red-velvet turban improvised from a set of men's pants perched on my head. From the sublime to the ridiculous -- and all of it wondrous

I live in Tucson, AZ, with my husband, son, one very ancient golden retriever, and three cats (who try to help me type out my manuscripts).

Customer Reviews

This book is a keeper, one of the small number I will read again.
Daniel Drell
I had to keep asking myself if it was fiction or not, and in many instances the writing just pulled me into the scenery.
Nancy E. Turner
If you like historical fiction and you also like historical nonfiction, I think you would enjoy this book.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By tudoreng on April 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Maybe it's because I have a degree in both history and English, but this book suited my taste perfectly, and I was surprised at the negative reviews. I picked up the book and finished it in two days because I couldn't put it down. Ms. Carrell has made the tale read like a historical whodunit. I read her chapter, then her endnotes. If you like historical fiction and you also like historical nonfiction, I think you would enjoy this book.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Astrea on March 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Not since Laurie Garret's THE COMING PLAGUE have I enjoyed a book more. The detail of the research is tremendous and the story it tells-- of a medical breakthrough for the western world despite politics, racism and ignorance is fascinating. It is so easy to lose sight of the true terror caused by this disease. Carrell's work brings it to life.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Penelope A. Kendall on June 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
An excellent book that reads like a novel but is the result of detailed the chapter notes prove. More historians should write like this...
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By David S. McIntosh on February 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
At last, a page turner about smallpox! This brilliant book tells two parallel stories about the discovery of inoculation by the English-speaking world around 1720. On one side of the Atlantic, the aristocratic Lady Mary Worley Montague convinces the Princess of Wales that she should deliberately infect her children to spare them the horror of full-blown smallpox. Unknown to her, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston starts doing the same thing in Boston. In both cases, they were taking medical practices from outsiders, from the Turks and from African-born slaves. The Establishment accused them of attempted murder. After all, they were deliberately infecting people with a disease that was either lethal or disfiguring, and that was certainly contagious. Thank heavens that they did. Reading this book makes one wonder if science is any more able to learn from outside today than it was 275 years ago.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By striderlighter on August 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Overall, this book is rather interesting. However, there are some aspects of the book that I think are poor and I am surprised that others failed to mention them.

First, we'll start off with the negetive aspects. First and foremost, the book dips in and out from intimate nearness to the characters to cold, infomational-type explaining. I generally feel little toward the characters and am impatient with the inconsistancy. Carrell seems to have trouble with balancing fascinating, animated narrating and dry narration.

Also, her organization is lacking. The weaving of story and information of the era etc proves clumsy and rough. Though never really confusing, it is often inconvenient to the reader. I enjoy the historical, informational parts, I simply wish they were better integrated into the overall story.

The last negetive aspect is her akward grammer. I noticed an alarming amount of improper or incorrect sentences. It doesn't harm in the way of conveying the message, but it often stumbles the reader and forces them to re-read and ponder over the mistakes.

On to the positive aspects. This book is quite fascinating, to put it bluntly. I have read many medical novels or accounts on smallpox, but this is the first historical novel I have been lucky enough to read. It is rife with historical information (obviously), such as the royalty at the time, who died of smallpox that is of importance to the story, conditions at that time, fasion, etc. I am pleased at her attempt to relay the infomation in an interesting, colorful way by making it into a tale instead of a simply narration. It is also unique in that it presents two different individuals' history of smallpox.

Not only is it interesting, but hey, it provides photos.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This book kept me up half the night to finish it. Pretty good for a story where the eventual outcome is already well known.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Crystal Zheng on June 12, 2009
Format: Paperback
Carrel's historical fictional novel brings to life Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boyleston's efforts to bring inoculation into the medical practice of the western world. I am amazed at how she was able to use letters, diaries, newspapers, and other primary documents to reconstruct what happened. By bringing out the characters as humans, she reminds us that they are not just figures in a history book, but takes us through their emotions and social interactions. Looking back on historical achievements, it may be easy to forget that progress can often be an uphill battle that is met with a lot of resistance.
For example, Carrel brings out the courage that these characters had in facing the strong, and often violent, opposition to inoculation. However, they continued to promote inoculation because of their dedication to fighting smallpox, stemmed from having suffered it themselves and having lost loved ones to the disease. After one of his patients dies from inoculation, Boyleston is described to have a personal moral conflict regarding his culpability in the patient's death. Yet, in just a reading from a history textbook, the reader would not be aware of the characters' personal motivations and emotional trials. Thus, reading this book makes the achievements and contributions of Mary and Boylseton all the more appreciated.
For those skeptics who wonder how much is true and how much is fiction, Carrel provides a detailed delineation in the "notes" appendage. I myself started reading the book wondering, "How does she know all this stuff?". The answer is that she probably is making it up, but writing what probably happened based on primary sources.
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