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Review: ‘Pox’ by Michael Willrich

Review: ‘Pox’ by Michael Willrich post image

Title: Pox: An American History
Author: Michael Willrich
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour.
Rating: ★★½☆☆

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.

Other Reviews: Man of La Book | Aetiology | Book Club Classics | Raging Bibliomania | Superbugs |

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • softdrink April 14, 2011, 8:41 am

    Zibilee said something similar about too much info, so now I’m scared of this book. If I’m going to read about science, it better be damn entertaining.

    • Kim April 15, 2011, 5:59 pm

      softdrink: I don’t think the book is scary in the sense that it’s hard to understand. It’s just got a lot of stuff in it, and it’s not always written in a way that makes the stuff as compelling as it might have otherwise been.

  • Man of la Book April 14, 2011, 12:09 pm

    I liked this book (http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=1237) and found it very readable especially due to the subject. I agree with you that it is well written.

    • Kim April 15, 2011, 5:59 pm

      Man of la Book: I’m glad you enjoyed it! I did like the writing very much, which is one thing that kept me involved.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) April 14, 2011, 12:55 pm

    If it was slow for you, it would probably drag on forever for me.

    • Kim April 15, 2011, 6:00 pm

      bermudaonion: Maybe a bit — I do have a decent tolerance for information-heavy books 🙂 This isn’t the sort of nonfiction I might recommend to people who don’t normally like nonfiction.

  • rhapsodyinbooks April 14, 2011, 5:06 pm

    I also say in my (upcoming) review TMI, but at the same time I think it’s good to have all of it documented somewhere. And the more I thought about it, and told my husband anecdotes from it, the more I came to appreciate all the stories in it!

    • Kim April 15, 2011, 6:01 pm

      rhapsodyinbooks: That’s a really good point that I didn’t think of. If there isn’t a good, definitive look at smallpox that discusses the disease with this framework, then having all the information there is a good thing. I did like the anecdotes, but I think they started to run together for me.

  • Jeane April 14, 2011, 5:54 pm

    It sounds rather like the book I read about the invention of the polio vaccine. Pretty interesting stuff.

    • Kim April 15, 2011, 6:02 pm

      Jeane: Early medicine, especially around the turn of the century, is fascinating (and frustrating — so much we didn’t know about!).

  • Trisha April 15, 2011, 9:30 pm

    Okay, I totally skimmed this because I haven’t finished yet. 🙂 But I did snatch a glimpse of the word “repetitive” and I’m definitely getting that vibe.

    • Kim April 16, 2011, 7:17 pm

      Trisha: I skim reviews for books I have planned to read too — once I get a review in my head, I can’t seem to think of my own ideas 🙂 I think the repetition comes from the fact that all of the different cases seem too similar to me.

  • Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours April 17, 2011, 7:29 pm

    And I was thinking that you’d really enjoy this one … it’s too bad that it felt slow to you. Still, thanks for being on the tour Kim!

    • Kim April 18, 2011, 8:19 pm

      Heather: I was thinking that I’d like this one too, but it’s just didn’t quite click for me. That’s ok though, not all books do, and I am glad to have read it.

  • Kate {The Parchment Girl} April 19, 2011, 4:35 pm

    Epidemics, public health, and related topics interest me a great deal, so this sounds like a book I might enjoy. Incidentally, the author lives in the same Massachusetts town where I spend at least a month or two every year… If I ever run into him there I’ll have to ask a few questions about his book!

    • Kim April 21, 2011, 7:14 pm

      Kate: That’s really interesting! I hope you get to meet him and ask about the book 🙂