Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pox: An American History

The smallpox outbreaks between 1895 and 1905 illustrate many important themes. You'd expect medical history, and of course it's there, but in Pox: An American History, historian Michael Willrich gives us much more.
  • Race: Some outbreaks began in the African American community, spread by itinerant workers moving between jobs on the railroad or in turpentine camps. Some whites believed it was only a black disease, and therefore didn't worry about public health measures until the outbreaks  had progressed. And when action was taken, blacks were vaccinated by force or under threat of force, sometime housing was destroyed, and penthouses  for  quarantining the sick were in black neighborhoods. 
  • Immigration: The book also explores the treatment of immigrants in tenements in Northeastern cities. 
  • Imperialism: controlling smallpox was a big concern for  the military occupations of Cuba and the Philippines, and it was accomplished, sometimes at bayonet point. 
  • Industry and regulation: ineffective  and  contaminated vaccines led to a federal statute to regulate vaccine production, a couple of years before the Food and Drug Act.  
  • State Power vs. Individual Autonomy: Should the  state be able to compel an individual to be vaccinated? Should  there be any exceptions for religious beliefs or individual health conditions? In short, you get a lot of history and policy in the course of learning about smallpox. 
I recommend this book for lots of interests. For more detailed reviews, see Michael Specter's review in the New Yorker or this story from Fresh Air

Pox is available in the law library (RA644.S6 W55 2011 at Classified Stacks). The catalog record is here.

1 comment:

Anne M. said...

Thanks for the recommendation - will order for YLS today :)