Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pox Americana

I love books about smallpox. Not just smallpox — I also enjoy reading about cholera, yellow fever, typhus, bubonic plague, and most other epidemic diseases.

Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 is one of my favorite disease-related light reads, right up there with The Speckled Monster and The Ghost Map. That's probably not fair — Pox Americana is more scholarly than either of the two, but it's not a dense text.

In Pox Americana, Fenn traces the path of smallpox from Boston to Mexico City to Vancouver, exploring how the disease affected social, economic, and political conditions wherever it struck. The best thing about this book is that Fenn follows the disease across the continent rather than confining her analysis to the eastern seaboard. By tracing the epidemic to the Spanish southwest, Hudson Bay, and across the Great Plains, Fenn offers a broad overview of the North American situation c. 1780.

Some of the more memorable take-aways:
  • Rather than blaming opposition to inoculation on superstition or ignorance, Fenn argues that poor people opposed inoculation because it was a prohibitively expensive procedure and because the rich put everyone at risk by wandering around willy-nilly while they were contagious.
  • Many of the African-Americans who took Governor Dunmore up on his offer of freedom didn't live long enough to enjoy it. 
  • The Spanish had a pretty impressive infrastructure in place in Mexico in the 18th century, but control lessened considerably as one traveled away from Mexico City. 
  • Native Americans in the American West were part of extensive trade and kinship networks that brought them into contact with European technologies and diseases long before they had direct contact with Europeans. (not earth-shattering, but worth a reminder)
Let's end this review Reading Rainbow style:
Whether your a big fan of infectious diseases or just interested in a study of 18th-century America that goes beyond Boston, this is the book for you. Pick it up at your local library!

1 comment:

CL said...

An excellent book! I refer to my copy quite often...

At my place of work, an English professor and I go back and forth about the use of the word "pox" and possibly bringing back the word in common language.

We are always sending examples of our finds to each other and have talked about writing a blog about it. A pox blog!