Pox: An American History - Michael Willrich

Title: Pox: An American History

Author: Michael Willrich

Publish Date: March 27, 2012

Publisher: Penguin Books

Format: Paperback

Page Count: 432

Source: My personal copy

Date Read: March 14 - April 24, 2020



This is a meticulously and exhaustingly researched book that was very readable. I'm just a slow reader to begin with and reading this while in the very early stages of the pandemic gave me a very small attention span. 


This book takes the smallpox scourge and investigates it from eight angles, broken into eight chapters: the Beginnings - takes a look at how smallpox developed and moved around the globe; the Mild Type -  how smallpox evolved into two distinct viruses, causing confusion and complancency; the work of CP Wertenbaker in Appliachia and the Deep South to help end the cycle of epidemics; War is Health - basically the US Army goes to war against the Spanish and smallpox; Stable and Laboratory - how vaccine purity needed an overhaul and how to produced enough pure vaccine for a growing empire; Politics - immigrants, working class workers, African American migration to the North and West and the politics surrounding the vaccination compulsion; the Activaccinationists - just like now, full of grifters!; and Speaking Law to Power - a bunch of lawsuits and legalese surrounding smallpox. Add in a prologue and epilogue, and it is a hefty book for only 345 reading pages (the rest is notes and index). The chapters are lonnnnnnggggggggg - 30-40 pages on average, so taking one chapter a weekend still required time to devote to this book. 


I thought the last chapter could have used some content editing, especially as the author gets into the weeds about the legal definitions of words and how those definitions can change a question before the courts. It was bit of a slog. I also think he coddles and enables today's anti-vaxxer in the epilogue - 


"In a broader sense, the history of America's turn-of-the century fight against smallpox cautions us against making reflexive judgments about the innumerable people, the world over, who greet scientific innovation and expert authority with skepticism, resentment, or steadfast resistance...It tells us little about the root causes of ambivalence toward medical science or how to bridge the gap between popular beliefs and the imperatives of preventive medicine." 


Yeah, he went and both sides the whole fucking point of the book with the last two paragraphs of his epilogue. I had to take at a star off for that and the too-long legalese chapter. But I would still recommend this book because Willrich does a commendable job covering smallpox from every corner.