Monday, April 18, 2011

Pox, An American History, by Michael Willrich-Blog Tour

POX, An American History
Michael Willrich
The Penguin Press, March 31, 2011
400pp. HC

Summary from The Penguin Press (Cover Jacket)

The untold story of how America's Progressive-era war on smallpox sparked one of the great civil liberties battles of the twentieth century. 
At the turn of the last century, a powerful smallpox epidemic swept the United States from coast to coast. The age-old disease spread swiftly through an increasingly interconnected American landscape: from southern tobacco plantations to the dense immigrant neighborhoods of northern cities to far-flung villages on the edges of the nascent American empire. In Pox, award-winning historian Michael Willrich offers a gripping chronicle of how the nation's continentwide fight against smallpox launched one of the most important civil liberties struggles of the twentieth century.

At the dawn of the activist Progressive era and during a moment of great optimism about modern medicine, the government responded to the deadly epidemic by calling for universal compulsory vaccination. To enforce the law, public health authorities relied on quarantines, pesthouses, and "virus squads"-corps of doctors and club-wielding police. Though these measures eventually contained the disease, they also sparked a wave of popular resistance among Americans who perceived them as a threat to their health and to their rights.

At the time, anti-vaccinationists were often dismissed as misguided cranks, but Willrich argues that they belonged to a wider legacy of American dissent that attended the rise of an increasingly powerful government. While a well-organized anti-vaccination movement sprang up during these years, many Americans resisted in subtler ways-by concealing sick family members or forging immunization certificates.
Pox introduces us to memorable characters on both sides of the debate, from Henning Jacobson, a Swedish Lutheran minister whose battle against vaccination went all the way to the Supreme Court, to C. P. Wertenbaker, a federal surgeon who saw himself as a medical missionary combating a deadly-and preventable-disease.

As Willrich suggests, many of the questions first raised by the Progressive-era antivaccination movement are still with us: How far should the government go to protect us from peril? What happens when the interests of public health collide with religious beliefs and personal conscience? In
Pox, Willrich delivers a riveting tale about the clash of modern medicine, civil liberties, and government power at the turn of the last century that resonates powerfully today.-The Penguin Press

My Review

Cover to cover, POX will command your attention with an unyielding grip.  Who would think a history about the smallpox scourge would be so engaging, fascinating in fact?

Yet with his extensive research and well crafted narrative Willrich has accomplished that and more. When you read his book, the smallpox epidemic at the turn of the twentieth century is the focus. However, his look back prior to 1900, and then forward in time provides an important timeline and perspective. It is always interesting as a historian, to view the past with twenty-first century eyes. Fortunately, Willrich provides objectivity when writing of the past while offering opportunities to reflect and make connections to current issues facing our global community.

During the Progressive Era, social reformers were crusaders of change.  Change is not always popular and Willrich points out those wishing to change current practice had their opposition. Vaccination proponents, favoring what was in their view necessary for the common good, argued with the opponents, the antivaccinationists who believed in a person’s individual rights.

POX provides a fluid chronicle of the smallpox virus and the development of the weapon that would ultimately obliterate it’s existence around the world.  The methods state governments implemented to enforce vaccination was not always equitable.  It is alarming to read, although it should not be a surprise that our country’s marginalized population suffered most. It was a common belief that this was a  African Americans, recent immigrants, and the poor were systematically singled out and physically forced to submit to vaccination and/or quarantined within their homes or taken to pesthouses for weeks. Race, income, religion and political difference created a clear line of injustice and inequity.

POX will encourage deep reflection and inspire the curious.  Michael Willrich has written a spectacular historical narrative, an outstanding read. POX has been added to my best picks for 2011.

Michael Willrich

"Michael Willrich is the author of City of Courts, which won the John H. Dunning Prize awarded by the American Historical Association for the best book on any aspect of U.S. history, and the William Nelson Cromwell Prize awarded by the American Society for Legal History. Currently an associate professor of history at Brandeis University, he worked for several years as a journalist in Washington, D.C., writing for The Washington Monthly, City Paper, The New Republic, and other magazines."  The Penguin Press, book jacket. 

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© [Wisteria Leigh] and [Bookworm's Dinner], [2008-2011].


rhapsodyinbooks said...

I agree this is an excellent book - and much better than an analogous one I recently read on "the great influenza."

wisteria said...

Hi Jill...I was very impressed with his research. What was the book on the influenza?

PS...My little Mystery is not good at all..struggling and I think it is time.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I have to admit that I have a morbid fascination with disease books so I think this would be a great one for me.

Thanks for being on the tour!