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Pox: An American History

3.65  ·  Rating details ·  751 ratings  ·  121 reviews
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
Hardcover, 432 pages
Published March 31st 2011 by Penguin Press
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Jan 10, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Thrilling read, seriously. I learned so much history: of pox, the development of public health oversight, the development of consumer affairs, the rift between individual liberties vs. social good, and more. Powerfully important stuff that more people should know.
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: historians, public health experts
Recommended to Ashley by: National Public Radio
I simply loved this book. Willrich does an incredible job blending legal, public health, and cultural history. He manages to be critical of the Progressive Era without sounding anti-reform or anti-progress. In particular, I appreciated the way he talked about the relationship between the post-Civil War society and smallpox vaccination as a social, rather than medical, issue. The information about how the US used vaccination as a tool of empire/war was also new to me and Willrich's insights are v ...more
May 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Trisha by: TLC Book Tours
A look at smallpox around the turn of the century, Pox explores the history of the disease and of vaccination, as well as the influence smallpox had on the role of government in public health. The subject matter itself is fascinating, in part because it is so sensational. The history of vaccination - and the horror stories accompanying it - are what I term "intellectually gruesome", meaning it's interesting on a brainy level while simultaneously appealing to the more basic need for blood, pus, a ...more
Porter Broyles
It's the fourth book on plagues I've read this year (the first one I read before we knew about COVID).

Of the four, this might be the most relevant to what is going on in the world right now. The book is broken into different phases:

Phase 1: Origins and Blame

While Small Pox has been around for centuries, when it popped up in the US in the 1890s, most people were not worried about it. The disease wasn’t identified for what it was and was considered a black disease. While reading the first 20% of t
Lauren orso
Jan 29, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: read2012
I wanted Ghost Map and I got a textbook. The founding of public health, early antivaccinationism and all the race/class aspects of vaccinations were really interesting, but oh my god this was a slog
Apr 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Laura by: NPR
To what lengths may the state go in order to protect the public health?

As an American born near the end of the twentieth century and the daughter of scientifically-minded parents, I'm used to thinking of vaccines as an unqualified positive development and the major factor that protects us today from diseases like measles and diphtheria. I started this book on the side of vaccinators, rooting for measures that would increase the vaccination rate and limit the effect of inevitable smallpox epidemi
Dee Eisel
Aug 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a history book and makes no pretense of being anything else. It is not trying to tell a story. It is trying to recount and link facts into a larger picture. It succeeds, but at the price of being a bit on the dry side. This will lose some readers, but if you stick it out you will end up with a much clearer picture of an era rapidly slipping into our culture's memory hole.
The smallpox vaccination scare of the Bush years itself is already fading from memory, so smallpox itself seems like
Sep 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is incredible. Sure I'm a sucker for turn of the century anything but this book is way more than that. What is incredible about it to me is that it is written with the ease and accessibility of a typical journalist written non-fiction book, but with the nuance and argument of an academic book. The book doesn't just trace the history of smallpox in America, it focuses in on a very important time for the formation of progressive ideas, the nation state, and American society and shows how ...more
Dixie Diamond
Mar 17, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, medical, my_books
Lot of interesting information, but the slanted perspective and obnoxious loaded language make it hard to read and make me trust the author less.

This was the end of the 19th century: Medicine barely grasped germ theory. The author's admiration of anti-vaccinators no longer makes sense *over a hundred years later* when vaccines are far more advanced and safer. In that regard, we are not in the same situation as we were in 1899.

(And I say this as someone with a close relative who is immune suppre
Sep 29, 2014 rated it liked it
It really didn't take that long to read this - the book just got lost in the piles of books around my bed! This was a very interesting study of America's last smallpox epidemic and the fight over vaccinations. An appropriate read for this time, what with the fears of an Ebola epidemic, the discussion of what to do with people exposed to Ebola, and the talk about vaccinations possibly causing autism, etc. The book is well-written and easy to read and understand - even the science parts, which are ...more
Nov 06, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Using smallpox vaccination as a case study, Willrich explores the broader progressive era movement in America (late 19th to early 20th century): the shift from liberty as an ideal specific to individuals to the gradual adoption of the idea of a social liberty (in an increasingly urbanized and interconnected society, the good of the many can trump the sovereignty of the individual).

Decades have elapsed since the last variola major outbreak (significantly more deadly form of the smallpox virus),
Rob Lund
Mar 09, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library
Pox read like a text book. It was dry, very long, but very exhaustive on the history of smallpox as a viral infection as well as social challenge.

I found the portions dealing with early race relations as it regards infectious diseases fascinating and troubling.

The latter third was also very illuminating. I had no idea just how deeply rooted the American anti-vaccination movement was. It hails from the early faith healers, Christian science, mesmerism, and of course libertarian conspiratorialists
I expeced this book to be about the history of smallpox in the US, when the epidemics hit, how they treated people, etc. What this book ended up being about was the vaccination against smallpox, and the Anti-Vaccination movement in American in the early 1900's. The thing I liked most about this book was learning that parents worrying about the side effects of their childrens vaccines is nothing new. That's the only thing that made the book interesting for me, which is sad because I've had this b ...more
Mar 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Those of us living in the era of COVID-19 who are experiencing a challenge none of us have experienced in our lifetimes are understandably drawn to histories of other pandemics. The most common parallel is probably the 1918 Spanish flu. I turned for my reading instead to this history of smallpox more out of convenience than anything – I had read much of it several years ago, and the book still sat on my shelf. I was originally drawn to the topic because smallpox is really the granddaddy of infec ...more
Apr 05, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It was interesting to read about the debate between the doctors and the "anti-vaccinators" in the context of a hundred years ago and how it parelells the current discussion. ...more
Mar 14, 2021 rated it liked it
The first half is exceptionally boring. It narrates the epidemic of smallpox throughout the US at the turn of the century. Each chapter goes through the story of the epidemic in a particular location, then circles onto the next place with exact same story, which is terribly repetitive. "And then it struck Virginina, and this happened. And then it hit New York, in this almost identical but slightly different way. And then New Jersey, and that happened there, too." It's technically accurate and we ...more
Sep 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2020
“There is, of course, a sphere within which the individual may assert the supremacy of his own will and rightfully dispute the authority of any human government, especially of any free government existing under a written constitution. But it is equally true that in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be e ...more
Scott J Pearson
May 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, healthcare
When did the current controversy about vaccines really start? According to Willrich’s history, the controversy about vaccines started all the way back with Jenner’s discovery of vaccination. Although smallpox once killed thousands of people each year in America, vaccination against smallpox was still controversial. A small fraction of people had adverse reactions, including death.

Obviously, this scared people. It especially scared those who were in oppressed groups, like blacks in the American S
Hunter James
Jan 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
"Using the flawed late nineteenth-century census returns to bolster their case, white experts claimed that the health of African Americans had plummeted since emancipation. This proved, the authorities claimed, that blacks had benefited from slavery and were so ill suited to freedom that they were now destined for extinction."

"Frequent bouts with naysayers led some officers to wish, in published government health reports, for the appearance of a "fool-killer": a fatal case of smallpox. As one No
Liz Barr
Dec 18, 2013 rated it liked it
Pox: an American History is less about smallpox in general, and more about the epidemics that swept America at the turn of the century, and how they led to the formation of a federal health system, plus debates about compulsory vaccination, medical ethics and more.

Now, smallpox was one of my big childhood fears (along with black holes and Daleks), so I started this book thinking that anyone who refused a smallpox vaccine was a dangerous idiot, same as the contemporary anti-vaxxers. But it’s actu
Mar 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011
"Pox: An American History" by Michael Willrich is a non-fiction book which traces how the smallpox vaccine was distributed during major outbreaks. Some of the vaccines were forced onto people which caused an outrage and the question made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

The book clearly suggests that an overlooked legacy of American dissent was the antivaccinationists. An increasingly powerful government took on the progressive position that the benefit of all people outweighs the problems of
Paul Pessolano
May 17, 2011 rated it liked it
“POX” by Michael Willrich, published by The Penguin Press.

Category – Medical History

How many of us today can roll up our sleeve and show a smallpox vaccination scar?

Michael Willrich traces the smallpox epidemic and the fight over vaccination in his book, “POX.” It is hard for us today to disease that for the most part has been eradicated. It is also hard for us to grasp how terrible and lethal the disease was.

When it was decided that mandatory vaccination would be necessary to control smallpox,
Probably the most important point I took from this is that the anti-vaccination movement is not as new as it seems. It makes sense that people would object to being jabbed with pointy objects, I was just surprised to learn that when faced with a choice of 'sore arm' or 'SMALLPOX', many people still decided to take their chances with the pox. But Willrich lays out the reasons why the "unwashed masses" (ah, the 19th-20th centuries, so full of benevolent ideas about those less fortunate than you) a ...more
I first heard of Pox: An American History from an interview Michael Willrich did on NPR. It sounded like it could be interesting, and I was not disappointed. Overall, the book only gets 3 stars from me because of some writing style issues and a certain degree of repetitiveness. The fascination of the story, however, kept it interesting. The tying together of the anti-vaccination movement and the idea of enforcing public health measures for the protection of the greater public with the civil righ ...more
Jun 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Densely written and thorough, traces history of compulsory vaccination against one of mankind's deadliest enemies. More of a social and legal history than a medical one and a bit of a slog due to the immense amount of detail. Sometimes I had a hard time keeping track of all the people, places, local statutes and cases. But Willrich does a good job reminding us of class divides in public health and individual liberties -- in case anyone needs that reminder. Ultimately the book tries to answer the ...more
Jan 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating account of the smallpox epidemic of 1898-1903 and the social and political history leading up to it. The author did an amazing job of discussing the origins of public health in the US (which basically started with smallpox vaccination), the conflict between personal rights and collective good, the development of consumer safety measures, the effects of immigration and treatment of oppressed groups, and the antivaccination movement of the 20th century. The writing was good and swept t ...more
Jan 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating portrait of the collective American psyche which often values the rhetoric of individual liberty over the public good and corresponding needed social legislation. The author used the history of the development of small pox vaccine and subsequent legal and political rights over mandatory vaccination to tell the story of the struggle between government, business, and individuals. Fascinating even if a tad too detailed. Just skip the names of every local health board member. Brief secti ...more
Mary Alice
Really fascinating. Covers the years 1898 through 1903 in America. The story of the last major small pox epidemic is the story of a civil liberties nightmare in the US and her colonies, the Phillipines and Puerto Rico.

The smallpox vaccine is the most dangerous of all the vaccines, and citizens of the world were coerced into receiving the vaccination for the good of the larger community. It actually made me sympathize with some of today's "anti vaccinationists".
May 31, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic history of state and federal laws as they affect social well being and individual liberties. Science, history, law, politics, racism, xenophobia, conspiracy theories all rolled up into an interesting tale that remains pertinent today although it is about smallpox vaccination laws dating to the turn of the last century.
Jan 01, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2012
Interesting book, although a bit densely detailed at times, especially in the coverage of lawsuits related to compulsory vaccination. It's hard to believe that smallpox epidemics were common as recently as the early 20th century and that the disease killed one third of those infected. The people who survived were horribly scarred. This is a fascinating history. ...more
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