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The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics Hardcover – March 8, 2016
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“As Stephen Coss shows in his deeply researched account, The Fever of 1721, Boston society divided along lines that we would not expect today . . . Smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979, but our current politics demonstrate that the tensions between personal freedom and public health that erupted in Boston in 1721 have yet to be fully resolved.” (The Wall Street Journal)
“In 1721, Boston was a dangerous place . . . In Coss’s telling, the troubles of 1721 represent a shift away from a colony of faith and toward the modern politics of representative government.” (The New York Times Book Review)
“Intelligent and sweeping . . . The people portrayed in this public health story, their struggles and interactions, feel at once intimate and urgent, thanks to Coss’ lucid telling of this fascinating story.” (Booklist)
“Coss's gem of colonial history immerses readers into 18th-century Boston and introduces a collection of fascinating people and intriguing circumstances. The author's masterly work intertwines Boston's smallpox epidemic with the development of New England Courant publisher James Franklin's radical press. . . . Unlike many other works on colonial America . . . Coss's focus on a specific location at a specific time fleshes out the complex and exciting scene in sharp detail, creating a historical account that is fascinating, informational, and pleasing to read.” (Library Journal, starred review)
“A fascinating glimpse inside the Boston mindset of the era.” (Kirkus Reviews)
“The Fever of 1721 is an all-American tale: a fire-and-brimstone minister, sensational media, hardball politics, a health panic. Stephen Coss depicts an uproarious colonial past not unlike our present.” (Richard Brookhiser, author of Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln)
“Stephen Coss has written an engrossing, original book about Boston a half century before the Revolution. It is a tale of medical drama, philosophical ferment, and journalistic beginnings—and it is a tale well worth reading!” (Jon Meacham, author of Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush)
“The Fever of 1721 skillfully reveals early Americans who challenged both the dominant political order and prevailing scientific ideas about disease. That rebelliousness—embodied in bold figures like Rev. Cotton Mather, Dr. Boylston, and the teenaged Ben Franklin—would lead directly to revolution before the century was out.” (David O. Stewart, author of Madison’s Gift and The Summer of 1787)
“Long before the American Revolution colonial Boston was a hotbed of social and political ferment, key factors that produced, in the face of lethal epidemic, the first public trial of general inoculation ever practiced in the western world. In this lively and engaging book, Stephen Coss brings to life the key players in that bold experiment—including Puritan icon Cotton Mather and Boston prodigy Ben Franklin—and unfolds in intimate detail their halting progress toward a genuine medical breakthrough. Closely observed, driven by quirks of character as well as fate, Coss delivers a story that illuminates the rambunctious soul of the budding new republic.” (Charles Rappleye, author of Sons of Providence and Herbert Hoover in the White House)
About the Author
The Fever of 1721 is Stephen Coss’s first book. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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And the really interesting part of the account was the intersection of Cotton Mather and the Franklin brothers on opposite sides of public opinion about the experiments in protecting citizens against this deadly disease. Cross' research reminds us of the horrific public and private costs of communicable disease as he delves into individual stories of death.
Ben Franklin is famously on the American C-note, once flew a kite in an electrical storm, wrote an almanac, and was an ambassador to France. I didn’t know much more than that which was provided in high school. And then there was Cotton Mather, a preacher, most infamously associated with the Salem witch trials. These two individuals played significant roles during the epidemic. And in surprising ways, as the author explains. It was Doctor Zabdiel Boylston who started inoculations against small pox during the epidemic, which were overwhelmingly successful in protecting the person from contracting the disease “the natural way,” which had a many fold higher mortality rate. The author explains that Boylston first commenced the procedure due to his understanding that this was a method that had been successfully used in Africa, as well as the Middle East, and perhaps even China. The surprising part: Mather was in favor of the procedure; Franklin, and the paper, “New England Courant,” that he was an apprentice to, and which his older brother, James, started and owned, was adamantly opposed.
Hubris. The ancient Greeks got it right: how so very often it is the dominant factor in a human drama. Dr. William Douglass, who considered himself the only “real” physician in Boston (since he was the only one with a medical degree; the others, including Boylston, learned their trade “OJT”, and were hence dubbed “practitioners” by him) was adamantly opposed to the procedure, and helped whip up political opposition to it, and used Franklin’s “New England Courant” to that purpose. Religious rivalry also played a significant part in the drama, with the Puritans, of which Mather was a leading preacher, on the side of Boylston, and the Church of England opposed.
In addition to the medical aspects of the fight against smallpox, Coss does a good job of presenting the nascent struggles regarding “freedom of the press.” No surprise, the government only likes good things said about it; youthful rebels like James Franklin felt otherwise, and actively promoted controversy which, as the author indicates, certainly helps circulation. The teenage Ben also demonstrated surprising talents in the “helping circulation” effort. And on that separate, but intertwined vector, Coss examines the political dramas, mainly between the appointed British governor, Samuel Shute, and the local legislative body, led by Elisa Cook, who would be an inspiration for Samuel Adams, a key figure in the American Revolution, half a century later.
Wars and epidemics. Sometimes they are intertwined, sometimes completely separate. Admittedly, the following is a most subjective guess: there must be 100 books written about war for every one written about epidemics. Yet the 1918 flu pandemic killed far more people than all the combatants who died in the First World War, and, as indicated above, smallpox killed far, far more people than all the wars of the 20th century. And thus, Coss’ book is important, for illuminating an aspect of American history, including its medical history that is not extensively covered elsewhere. The only aspect I found lacking was that he did not provide a reasonable explanation why inoculation with a live smallpox virus actually worked in providing immunization against smallpox contracted the “natural” way; intuitively one would suspect, like Dr. Douglass, that it would simply be a faster way of spreading the disease and killing people. Nonetheless, overall, an excellent read: 5-stars.