Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pox Americana Book Review

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

Elizabeth A. Fenn’s Pox Americana is a well-researched account of smallpox in North America, from its role in the American Revolution, to its presence in Mexico and the decimation of populations it caused in the American West. The sheer amount of information in Fenn’s book is remarkable, and each page is filled with first-hand accounts, cited statistics and figures that would otherwise be lost to history. Fenn begins with a recent history of smallpox, then works backwards, offering insight and little known facts, from laws in Pennsylvania that forbid variolation, to the fact that Native American treatments were as ineffective as European treatments, a South Carolina ordinance that called for guards outside pox-infested homes, and a Massachusetts law ordering red flags to be flown outside houses with smallpox victims. A book that admirably accounts for multiple fronts of the battle against smallpox in North America, Pox Americana recognizes European efforts to help Native Americans counter smallpox in addition to chronicling the biological warfare that settlers often used against indigenous peoples. In a style that is concise as much as it is conscious of the profound impact smallpox has had on the American psyche, Fenn uncovers an obscure chapter of history with sensitivity and scholarship.

Elaine Su

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