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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.
Top customer reviews
Prominent in responding to the disease was Cotton Mather, the famous cleric forever identified and tarnished with the Salem Witch trials. So the reader learns a good deal about this "fire and brimstone" Puritan cleric and the struggle taking place with Boston individuals and groups seeking to weaken the Puritan stranglehold on the community. A second important dimension of the book is its extensive discussion of the early years of Benjamin Franklin, who at the time of the epidemic was an apprentice printer to his brother James at the New England Courant, an early newspaper that would make history in establishing freedom of the press. The author's description of Ben Franklin at this early stage of his career adds an important dimension of our understanding of Ben and the important figure he would become. Particularly effective is the book's discussion of Ben's anonymous satirical "Silence Dogood" purported reader's letters to the newspaper.
A very important focus of the book is the battle that takes place for freedom of the press involving the Courant and the local religious and political establishments. The idea that a newspaper would not contend itself with reprinting government "press releases" but would undertake independent investigations and publish material highly critical of the government, was virtually unprecedented and set off a firestorm that foreshadowed the Peter Zenger trial in 1735. James Franklin, despite being arrested at one point, also established the principle that a newspaper did not have to reveal the identity of its sources and could fight censorship if necessary.
But the heart of the book is the very nasty smallpox epidemic and how inoculation divided the community. It is an excellent case study of how ignorance and religious intolerance can severely hamper the benefits of medical science--not exactly unknown in our own time. So all together, there are solid multiple reasons why this is a valuable book. The author's research and familiarity with the topic are impressive; his writing clear and cogent. Hopefully, further fine historical studies will be forthcoming from this author.
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.