One Sentence Summary: A powerful smallpox epidemic in the United States at the turn of the century brought out complicated questions about public health and civil liberties that we are still grappling with today.
One Sentence Review: While I thought the focus and topic of Pox were interesting, the book read frustratingly slowly for me.
Long Review: The premise of Michael Willrich’s Pox: An American History is an interesting one: Willrich uses a series of smallpox epidemics in the United States around the turn of the century to explore larger themes of American liberty as they apply to public health, the military, civil rights, and the law. In framing the historical event in this way, Willrich is able to illuminate events of the past and prove their relevance to debates today. As the dust jacket explains,
As Willrich suggests, many of the questions first raised by the turn of the century 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 belief and personal conscience?
This topic seems like it should be perfect for me, but there was something about the book that read very, very slowly for me. I think, in part, the book suffers from a bit too much information. After a few chapters, every smallpox epidemic and the accepted response — quarantine, forced vaccination, and rebellion — follows a similar trajectory. I don’t think Willrich did enough to differentiate between the cases, to show what new facet of the issue they raised, which made them feel repetitive.
Feeling that way about the book makes me sad because there were many things about it that I admired. Willrich’s writing, for one, is quite elegant and does give the examples a nice sense of story. When describing how smallpox is spread, Willrich writes,
A single breath, cough, laugh, sigh, or spoken word was enough to launch the virons into the air. When one or more particles touched down upon the mucous membrane of another person’s mouth, nose, throat, or lungs, the process of viral replication began within hours.
I like the balance that particular sentence strikes between imagination (“sigh or spoken word”) and the science of a smallpox epidemic (“viral replication”). When describing Charles P. Wertenbaker, one of the early fighters against smallpox, Willrich explains,
A university-trained medical man with the discipline of a soldier and the bearing of an officer, Wertenbaker knew how to handle a microscope, a pen, and a gun.
Again, Willrich is able to express a vast amount about Wertenbaker simply by sharing the things he was familiar with (“a microscope, a pen, and a gun”). The book is full of these well-written sentences, which build upon each other effectively.
I was also intrigued by Willrich’s assertions (and evidence) that public health can be a coercive activity, a way to manipulate citizens into obeying the rule of law and create a sense of social regulation. Additionally, his discussions of the inherent racism of public health initiatives historically are a good reminder about the power of authority today. Still, these interesting themes and notes weren’t enough to make me feel excited when I went to pick up this book, which is a sign to me that a little bit of something is missing.
Even so, I encourage you to give this book a look if the topic seems interesting to you, then take a look at some of these other reviews and see if they persuade you otherwise.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!