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The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  1,282 ratings  ·  153 reviews
The Speckled Monster tells the dramatic story of two parents who dared to fight back against smallpox. After barely surviving the agony of smallpox themselves, they flouted eighteenth-century medicine by borrowing folk knowledge from African slaves and Eastern women in frantic bids to protect their children. From their heroic struggles stems the modern science of immunolog ...more
Paperback, 512 pages
Published January 27th 2004 by Plume Books (first published April 10th 2003)
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4.02  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,282 ratings  ·  153 reviews

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Margo Brooks
Jun 29, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I couldn't put this book down. Although a history book, it was written by a literature professor and reads like a novel. This is the story of the two people--Lady Mary in London and Dr. Boylston (with Cotton Mather's help)in Boston--who in 1721 each began experiments in smallpox innoculation as learned from the Turks and their African slaves. Despite great personnal hardship and danger, they ultimately helped prove that the vacine, although dangerous was much less so than catching smallpox the n ...more
Jun 01, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, research
Some of us are old enough to remember lining up at school for polio vaccine. It's hard to convey what it meant to our parents to know this childhood terror could be prevented with a simple oral dose of medicine (bless you, Dr. Salk).

In the 17th & 18th C., smallpox destroyed populations, upset the balance of power in European courts as it killed rulers and heirs, and terrified communities at the first sign of the distinctive pox. Prior to Edward Jenner making the connection between cowpox and
Talulah Mankiller
Jun 15, 2010 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sherry Beth Preston
Since the beginning of time smallpox has killed hundreds of millions of people. The disease killed more people than the plague and all the 20th Century wars combined. Long before Edward Jenner perfected a vaccination in 1796, Lady Mary Wortley Montague of London and Zabdiel Boylston of Boston learned about inoculation in two surprisingly different ways. Each determined to use this knowledge to prevent others from contracting smallpox.

In The Speckled Monster Jennifer Lee Carrell tells the story
3.5 stars.

This is a tough one to review. Because it's a fascinating and compelling story and it's clearly very well researched. It's not even remotely dry and it managed to make history very readable.


So much of it is speculation. It's well researched, yes. But it's been turned into a narrative. And there's actually an entire chunk at the back of the book where the author is like "Okay, so in Chapter 1, this, this, and this actually happened. Person X wrote this letter but I changed the wo
Lisa B
Nov 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most intriguing books I have ever read
Oct 14, 2009 rated it liked it
I would actually give this 2 1/2 stars if I could. A timely read considering the H1N1 flu epidemic, this book traces the difficult path to acceptance of smallpox inoculation (which is slightly different from vaccination, because inoculation used live smallpox matter, not the less serious cowpox virus) in both England and Colonial Boston. In England, it traces Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (who I know only as an author) as she learns about inoculation during her husband's time as ambassador to Turkey ...more
May 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
This was another that took a little time to get into, but once I did I was fascinated! The true story of Zabdiel Boylston and Lady Mary--2 courageous people who brought about the smallpox inoculation in the 1700's. It's interesting how the book is set-up...first Lady Mary's story (which in my opinion, wasn't as good) followed by Boylstons. After a certain point the chapters flip flop back and forth between stories.
It's hard to imagine living in a time when disease was so rampant and deadly, yet
Aug 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
This narrative account of how smallpox vaccine was developed is very readable.
Apr 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
What a great history of smallpox and the birth of inoculation and later vaccination. It amazes me that we still see many of the same misperceptions regarding vaccines that we did in the 1700s. This story was well written and fairly easy to read. Carrell maintained my interest by making me interested in the well being of the inoculators. I would highly recommend this to anyone in the medical profession and those interested in medical history.
Doreen Petersen
Aug 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: medical
Two very interesting cases of smallpox. To think this could still happen today is very sad. A really good read to educate yourself on what happens and what can be done to deal with it.
Jonathan Kieran
Jan 13, 2016 rated it it was amazing
In a deftly written narrative that straddles the line between historical non-fiction and superbly researched historical fiction, author Jennifer Lee Carrell brings the reader face-to-face with the full-blown horror of the dreaded smallpox outbreaks of 18th Century London and Boston. She interweaves the gripping stories of London's Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Boston's Dr. Zabdiel Boylston --two intrepid and indefatigable individuals determined to offer their vastly disparate social circles new ...more
Jul 08, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is the 2nd time I've read The Speckled Monster. I read it several years ago and liked it then; but either I skipped numerous pages the first time, or paid more attention this time! What a story Ms. Carrell has woven about the battle to overcome the dreaded smallpox that raged throughout the world in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s & was finally won in the 1970s! Looking back from this world of available vaccinations and anti-biotics, it's easy to call those who practiced medicine in the Age of ...more
Tonya Aiossa
Jan 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in medicine or 18th century historical accounts.
Recommended to Tonya by: Borrowed from the shelf of Carl Hodges
If you have any interest in immunology or 18th century American (colonial)/British history, you might just adore this book.

It is like a novel in that you are drawn into the story, woven into its weave as if you were a thread yourself. Except, the characters, rather than fictitious friends of the author's pen, are ... were there, actually there in 18th century London and Boston. They mingled among friends such as Alexander Pope and wrote accounts of their dealings with "the speckled monster," (al
Feb 11, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I learned a lot from this book: history, medicine and the lives of two courageous people, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in England and Zabdiel Boylston in the American colonies. One thing that struck me was that people will form mobs and persecute for anything they don't fully understand - as they did with Zabdiel Boylston in Boston for innoculating those people who asked to be innoculated (mobs aren't saved only for religious differences). Another thing I learned is that medicinal history continues ...more
Eva St. Clair
Dec 23, 2014 rated it really liked it
"The Speckled Monster" is an engaging, beautifully written near-novelization of how inoculation for smallpox was introduced to England and America in the 1720s. The author has taken great pains to bring the people of the historical incidents to life using primary sources that range from letters and journals to scholarly publications of the time period. The result is largely entertaining and informative.

Personally, I am not usually a fan of this style of writing history since it relies heavily o
Mar 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read this out of pure curiosity and so glad I did. I remember being vaccinated back in the 70's, along with the rest of the students at my elementary school, so I thought I would see what all the hoopla was about. Again, so glad I did.

Not trying to make a statement one way of the other on the pro's & con's of vaccination but, for those who do not want to vaccinate their children this is a must read. It seems we have either forgotten or I my case are ignorant of the cause and effect of the
Jun 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book clearly details how horrifying smallpox was. We are privileged to live in a time when we don't have to be terrified of this monster. Terrified of the thought of an unseen monster killing family members and loved ones. Lady Mary and Zabdiel Boylston owe their legacy to folk wisdom from Turkey and Africa just as Edward Jenner owes his legacy to these two. Boylston, who I had never even heard of, is an American hero. Against mobs he saved hundreds of lives, at one point he got a standing ...more
Nov 30, 2017 rated it liked it
This book is a tale of battling smallpox as seen through the lives of a handful of important figures in that fight. It is full of fascinating details about some very interesting people, many of whom the majority of us probably never heard of, as Jenner generally gets all the credit.
This book takes you into the lives of a British noblewoman who travels to the court of Turkey, an American doctor of whom I had never heard (and I teach history...for shame!), the famous Mathers of old, slaves who k
Oct 31, 2017 rated it liked it
This work of non-fiction is a relevant read in today's world of new epidemic threats. After talking to several of my friends, I'm wondering if we have become too complacent about the need and benefits of immunizations. Whether it is pneumonia, shingles, or the flu, people (my friends) are commonly opting to pass on the "new" vaccines. For that reason alone, I believe this is an important read - if for no other reason, it is an excellent reminder of the horrors of contagious disease. The author s ...more
May 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Be prepared for a lot of intro on Lady Mary that is largely unnecessary before the narrative really kicks in. The actions of Lady Mary and Dr. Boylston were heroic: trusting the evidence before your eyes over the wisdom of your age is never easy. The author does a great job of recreating those moments, and made a story worth telling. Looking forward to more stories in her voice.
Rogue Reader
Mar 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: medicine
Remarkably readable account of the history of smallpox and its defeat through the work of countless brave souls, but particularly the earliest, Mary Wortley Montagu, Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylstone.
Dan Greiner
Feb 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
Interesting read. I enjoyed the sections about Lady Mary a lot more. The Boylston sections felt rushed and seemed to jump around quite a lot. It definitely gave a good picture of the different attitudes and cultures at the time.
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: to-find
Such an interesting read. Actually, I listened to this one while doing laundry and cleaning. It’s a historical account but reads more like a novel which made it easy to listen to and hold my attention.
Mar 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Great read. Wish there had been a bit more about Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu.
David Brown
Dec 27, 2018 rated it it was ok
Overly and unnecessarily descriptive. Equally boring.
Dec 21, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
A bit slow but fascinating story about two people willing to try something new in order to protect their family from smallpox, and how the ended up saving hundreds
Aug 08, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: medical
I did not fully agree with some of the modern day points. It seemed like a couple of times Carrell mixed up inoculation and vaccination.
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was fascinating- after a slow 50 pages or so, I couldn't put it down! The characters come to life brilliantly.
Dec 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
I had no idea how devastating and horrible smallpox was. It truly was a plague that repeatedly ravished societies. It was fascinating to learn about the faith and fight to introduce inoculation in a time when doctors understood so little about disease. It was a miracle.

This book is categorized as non fiction but it is written like a novel. I was a little disappointed when I read the notes and felt the author may have added too many undocumented details to make her story flow, but it did make it
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I've always wanted to write books; early on, my fallback career choices were ballerina and astronaut. It has something of a surprise, though, to find myself writing thrillers. I am now working on a novel of historical fiction about one of my favorite paintings, Jan Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding.

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