Pox Americana by Elizabeth A. Fenn
Book review by Cooper Lloyd
Elizabeth A. Fenn’s Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 offers a unique and astonishingly well-researched account of the role of smallpox in America’s formative years. Using a plethora of primary documents to support her arguments, Fenn relates the previously neglected narrative of smallpox during the American Revolutionary War. Her more textbook-like descriptions of historical events are balanced with carefully crafted vignettes and individual stories, and the result is a gripping and thorough account of a disease that, between 1775 and 1782, surely changed the course of history.
Pox Americana relates a couple of different narratives, including both the effects of smallpox in and on the Revolutionary War, as well as the effects of the disease on Native American populations. The book coalesces, however, in its depiction of the virus as a powerful and unrelenting force, and in its implicit argument that an account of American history is incomplete without an understanding of smallpox and its movement between and among populations. Fenn’s ability to pull together disparate documents and data to make these points demonstrates not only scholarly aptitude, but also a strong vision and vivid imagination for the events of the past. This combination of scholarship and storytelling is Fenn’s greatest achievement in Pox Americana.
In the first half of the book, Fenn describes the movement of troops in Boston, Quebec, Philadelphia, Virginia, and the South, while in the second half she expands to the American West and the fur trading industry. While describing smallpox separately in each locale, she also shows connections between different outbreaks that ultimately enabled the disease to spread across the continent. Fenn demonstrates clearly that the outcome of the war was determined not only by the course of Variola among and between populations, but also by the response of the army and civilians to the virus. Perhaps most interestingly, she argues that George Washington’s decision to inoculate the American troops was one of his most important decisions during the war – a claim that is substantially supported, if controversial.
Fenn’s book not only succeeds as a historical narrative, but also as a source that comes to bear on present day. Pox Americana, for example, paints a picture of the conditions in which smallpox, as well as other infectious diseases, thrive: cramped quarters in military camps, close and unhygienic living conditions in cities, and an “unbroken chain of person-to-person connections.” Furthermore, Fenn shows the reader, rather than simply telling, the incredible potential of smallpox as a biological weapon, and the reader cannot help but extrapolate to the future. In this light, her book provides an eerie vision of what the future could hold and, one might argue, a case for the rapid and final extermination of Variola from the planet.
While there is little to criticize about Pox Americana in terms of thoroughness, at times it seems that Fenn’s writing simply includes too much and that the book is overloaded with evidence, dates, and facts. By the end, reader grows weary of the constant deluge of information that characterizes the narrative, and finishing the book can feel like a chore. It is hard to blame Fenn, however, for substantiating her argument so completely. Pox Americana chronicles an often ignored but vital piece of American history, and it deserves to take its place as a major chronicle of both disease and history in America.