Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich — 400 pgs

Book Cover
Although now extinct, during the late 1890s and early 1900s, smallpox, also known as the variola virus, was a widely feared and extremely destructive disease that made its virulent way across America and abroad. As smallpox cases, beginning in the south, raged across the country, new and terrifying measures were taken to stop the spread of the disease and to inoculate the population. But resistance to the new procedures forced American lawmakers, scientists and doctors to become more aggressive in their tactics, forcing citizens into compulsory vaccinations that were fought with violence and hatred, and sometimes even resulted in court cases. Over many years and across many continents, compulsory vaccination spread its vicious claws, effectively turning the American government into a police state, at least where the issue of small pox was concerned. In this revealing portrait of the disease, Michael Willrich exposes not only the very serious and possibly fatal consequences of smallpox, but of the revolutionary zeal with which the American government went to war with this most heinous of diseases. Incorporating statistics, personal reflections, photographs and impeccable research, Willrich gives his readers a comprehensive overview of the history of smallpox from its first serious outbreak to its final abatement. The struggle against this horrible disease is captured here, in all its terrifying reality and implications.

From the earliest infestations of smallpox, leading medical authorities mistakenly believed that the disease was caused by unhygienic practices, which led to utter confusion when trying to stamp out epidemics. The real cause of smallpox is an incredibly robust virus, able to disperse itself through various measures. Scientists and physicians had been on the wrong track for a long time. When scientists discovered that by scratching the live smallpox virus into the skin of the arm, the patient could actually be vaccinated against the virus, smallpox abatement became the order of the day, and governmental officials sought to vaccinate every man, woman and child in America.

But the effects of the vaccination were sometimes painful, and due to the inability to sterilize the virus before use as a vaccine, the vaccinations sometimes caused other infections, such as syphilis and tetanus. Public outcry against vaccination became the norm, and anti-vaccination leagues began to rage In many cases. Compulsory vaccination became like warfare, with those objecting being forced to comply at gunpoint or being fined and thrown in jail. No American was spared, and often children were turned away from schools, and men and women from labor, if they could not show the telltale vaccination scar.

Pesthouses, where those ill with smallpox could recover, began to be built in areas of each city, much to the dismay of the surrounding population, and vaccination was carried into the Spanish and Philippine wars, not only for the soldiers, but for the natives as well. Compulsion became coercion and violence in these instances, and the rights of the people to refuse vaccination were summarily dismissed. Quality control of the vaccines became a problem again and again, with many people suffering dreaded diseases after their vaccinations. In one stunning display, tens of schoolchildren died of tetanus after being vaccinated by a tainted batch of smallpox vaccine. Smallpox vaccination engendered heated discussion among professionals as well as laypersons, and as the right to refuse vaccination flew away, more and more opposition began to grow. In effect, the government of the United States had decided to act in the welfare of all of its citizens by enforcing vaccination in every case. In its first real skirmish against the American people themselves, the government won, and it changed the way that individual liberties would be shaped from that time until today.

This book was extremely informative but I couldn't help feeling a little overwhelmed with all the information presented. There were sections that were much more interesting than others, particularly those sections on germ theory and the information about vaccine production and purity. Other sections that dealt more heavily with wartime vaccinations and court battles were somewhat dry, which created a feeling of unbalance in the scope of my reading. Considering that this was a very controversial and lengthy issue, the book was sometimes weighed down by its own preponderance of information, though there were times when I read compulsively and avidly. The book was greatly informational about all the aspects of smallpox, from the domestic and governmental issues to the medical and legal issues, but a lot of this information seemed a little too tightly packed for casual reading. Smallpox certainly created some interesting conundrums in the area of contagion management, civil liberties and medical ethics, and I think Willrich did an impressive job of explaining it all to an audience that may never before have thought of the kinds of problems that a smallpox epidemic would raise.

Though the book was weighty and dense, it was written with a solid foundation in research and with a truly inquisitive style that elevated it beyond what I would have considered it to be. It might not be concise, but those looking for a well rounded book that exposes the many sides of the smallpox issue would do well to pick this one up and give it a try. Ambitious in its scope, this book delivers in ways that you might not expect.

Author Photo About the Author

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 Book Prize awarded by the American Society for Legal History. A native of Washington, D.C., Willrich was educated at Yale and the University of Chicago. 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. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Thursday, March 31st:Man of La Book
Monday, April 4th:Aetiology
Wednesday, April 6th:Book Club Classics!
Thursday, April 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, April 12th:Amy Reads
Wednesday, April 13th:Superbug
Thursday, April 14th:Sophisticated Dorkiness
Monday, April 18th:Bookworm’s Dinner
Tuesday, April 19th:In the Next Room
Wednesday, April 20th:Rhapsody In Books
Thursday, April 21st:Take Me Away
Monday, April 25th:Mommypotamus
Tuesday, April 26th:Eclectic/Eccentric
Wednesday, April 27th:Life Is A Patchwork Quilt
Thursday, April 28th:PhD in Parenting
Date TBD:Ruby Slippers

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.


bermudaonion said...

Now that I read this, I realize that kids today don't have to get the smallpox vaccination that we did back when I was a kid. The topic of this book sounds interesting, but it might be too dense for me.

Jenny said...

This could be great for me! I am really interested in vaccines and social histories of diseases. I think it's really intriguing to see how people responded to diseases; it's not always the responses you would expect!

Jenners said...

I've read books about similar topics and found them interesting but this one sounds a bit more dense than I like.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I finished my review today too. The real thing you gotta do though is go to google images and put in smallpox. Way more incredible even than the pictures he includes in the book! I never knew it was that bad!!!

Trisha said...

I haven't even started reading this one yet, so I briefly skimmed the review. From what I did get, it looks like I should prepare myself for a lot of information!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds interesting. There seems to be a lot more interesting N/F lately to choose from.

Jenny said...

Uh oh... I'm on the tour for this too and now a little worried. I'm sure if you felt this way that I will definitely feel the same. The topic is sitll pretty fascintating to me, though, so hopefully I'll be interested for that aspect alone!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Interesting ... I wonder who the target audience is, this seems 'heavy' for a typical reader ... maybe geared toward recreational reading for those with a medical background, or to fuel one side of the vaccine debate?

The author lives in the general area, I'm going to see if he's speaking anywhere close by ... sounds like he has a passion for his research, anyway!

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

This is the second positively received disease book I've read a review for this week. What's going on with our bloggers? :O) Just kidding; it's just really fascinating stuff. Especially with all of the "discussion" (and I use that term loosely, hence the quotation marks), recently, regarding vaccines, it's great to get a little bit of back history about why we don't have certain diseases or even vaccines anymore. Thanks for the review!

ImageNations said...

"and the rights of the people to refuse vaccination were summarily dismissed. " it shows you that the rights we talk about, we claim to possess can be taken away from us too. Those to whom such rights belong can decide to use the laws to strip us of any rights if it suits them. What then is rights if it is given to you at a time and you cannot express it at all times.

Recently, in Ghana, many individuals refused to take the H1N1 injection because there were reported cases of deaths directly resulting from it. Yet, the government pretended as if it had not heard. Well, it couldn't force the population, that part which did not want it, to be forcefully injected.

This is a great book and it speaks more than just smallpox. It tells of when and how our liberties and rights could be taken away from us.

Anonymous said...

I have a morbid fascination with books about disease. The fact that there is so much history in there really appeals to me as well, but I'm a nerd like that. :)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one for the tour!

Darlene said...

This one sounds fascinating Heather. I love learning about the history of this kind of stuff.

Lisa said...

Your reaction is exactly what I was thinking might be mine--I felt like this could be very interesting but maybe a bit dry. Maybe something that would be better read a little at a time.

TheBookGirl said...

It doesn't surprise me that you found the book to be somewhat uneven in sections. I would have been amazed if the book had not been weighed down at times by the science, particularly given that it is 400 pages. I think it's a real compliment for you to say that you read avidly at times, given the subject.

Suko said...

Zibilee, you touch upon many important issues in this terrific review. Pox sounds like an interesting book that shows the many angles of disease and vaccination. The more we research diseases that are caused by "incredibly robust viruses", the more likely we are to discover a vaccine for the AIDS virus--and perhaps many cancers as well.

Kathy said...

Ziblee, thanks for a great review. I love books like this and would not have known of this one without your review. It's on my TBR list now!

Aarti said...

This sounds like a great subject, but I worry about how dense you say it is. I also hope it doesn't spark people onto that anti-vaccination path again, because I hate those people who don't let their kids get vaccinated, just depending on the fact that everyone else is vaccinated around them, and blaming vaccinations for causing autism with zero basis whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

It does sound interesting, but you lost me at germ theory. I don't do well with sciencey stuff.

Amy said...

Oh I can't wait to read this myself when I get it :) Sounds interesting!

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