Pox: An American History by Michael WillrichPox: An American History by Michael Willrich

Pox: An American History

byMichael Willrich

Hardcover | December 28, 2012

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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.
Michael Willrich is the award-winning author of City of Courts. He is an associate professor of history at Brandeis University and a former journalist who wrote for The Washington Monthly, City Paper, The New Republic, and other magazines. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Title:Pox: An American HistoryFormat:HardcoverDimensions:400 pages, 9.54 × 6.51 × 1.37 inPublished:December 28, 2012Publisher:Penguin Press (HC)Language:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:1594202869

ISBN - 13:9781594202865

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Editorial Reviews

"Willrich's account of the early days of the American progressive movement couldn't be more instructive or timely...a worthy read." -Booklist (starred review) "Willrich melds meticulous research with elegant writing to create a richly- textured social history...at the charged intersection of science, politics, race, and culture...You'll never think the same way again about the now all-but- mechanical ritual of rolling up your shirtsleeve for a vaccine needle." -Hampton Sides, author of Hellhound on His Trail "...In the highly skilled hands of Michael Willrich, hard cases make great history. We all have much to learn from this excellent book." -David Hackett Fischer, author of Champlain's Dream and Washington's Crossing "A fascinating, fast-paced story of America's last major smallpox epidemic...This is history at its best written by a master of his craft." -Michael J. Klarman, author of From Jim Crow to Civil Rights "Pox is a scholarly rarity: an important and deeply-researched book that speaks not only to historians, but to any thoughtful reader...he has made a lasting contribution to our understanding of the complex and tangled relationship between the powers and responsibilities of the state and the autonomy of individual men and women." -Charles Rosenberg, author of The Cholera Years "In Pox: An American History, Michael Willrich meticulously traces the story of how the smallpox vaccine was pressed into service during a major outbreak." -The Wall Street Journal