Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History

By Donald R. Hopkins

If I had to choose only word to describe The Greatest Killer: Smallpox in History by Donald R. Hopkins, it would be “thorough.” The book is comparable to an encyclopedia in its comprehensiveness of the history of smallpox. Hopkins somehow manages to write about smallpox in all five continents and its history in each of those continents. In addition to discussing the fairly well-known history of smallpox in Europe, he thoroughly chronicles smallpox in East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Africa which I think is rarer and sometimes more interesting knowledge. In doing so, Hopkins blends history and medicine and presents himself as both a doctor and historian with the authority to speak about smallpox.

My main criticism of Hopkins’s novel is how he documents the people affected by smallpox. Hopkins writes in his introduction that he “deliberately chose to linger on the illnesses and deaths of prominent persons…first, because they were bound to be of more obvious consequence to history than the illnesses or deaths of numerous less influential folk” (Hopkins xiv). Ironically though, in listing every single member of royalty that was ever infected with smallpox in the history of the world, Hopkins turns these prominent persons into less influential folk in the minds of the readers. At the end of first few chapters of the book, I couldn’t recall one monarch in European history that had been infected with smallpox (except for Queen Elizabeth I) because they all blurred together in my mind. Essentially, there was nothing distinguishing these monarchs from all the other millions of people infected with smallpox because Hopkins only succeeded in pressing upon the reader that A LOT of people were infected with smallpox.

However, when Hopkins is not listing every single prominent person in the history of the world infected with smallpox, he does write an incredibly interesting account of other aspects of the history of smallpox – how it changed the trajectory of numerous empires, how different cultures responded to the disease, and how the “same despair, tragedy, fear, bewilderment, and mistakes…seen in African and Asian villages…[also occurred] in European palaces, North American hospitals, and elsewhere in the not so distance past” (Hopkins xiv). The organization of the book allows for readers to easily observe the evolution of attitudes and behaviors towards smallpox in the different continents (i.e. his last chapter is called “Erythrotherapy and Eradication”), and although very dense, Hopkins’s writing is comprehensive and easy to read.

In 1806, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Jenner that “future generations will know by history only that the loathsome has existed.” I would not be surprised if Hopkins’s book became the main vehicle for knowing the existence and history of smallpox in the future.


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