My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As a museum interpreter, I’ve long related aspects of the story of George Washington and his dogged determination to win the Revolutionary War. Then a friend loaned me her copy of Pox Americana, and now I’ve learned about yet another obstacle that Washington had to vanquish alongside the British forces. I knew that smallpox afflicted the American population for a couple of centuries, but not to the extent that, between 1775 and 1782, it was as deadly as one of the black plague outbreaks that so famously devastated Europe.
Pox Americana is an eye opener. It opens with a description, complete with photos, of the course that smallpox takes, from early exposure to its horrific outbreak to its most frequent outcome, the death of the sufferer. The photos were explicit enough to prompt me to put the book aside for a few days to get over a bout of nausea over what they showed. The narrative provides the history of the inoculation efforts that were opposed by so many, and, once it became evident to Washington that his forces in 1775 Boston were likely to be annihilated by the disease, the process which he went through in order to formulate a plan to save the army as well as the general populace. “Taking the smallpox” via inoculation was no walk in the park. Evidence that British military leaders attempted to employ germ warfare against the American side (Europeans had greater immunity to smallpox due to centuries of exposure) is also examined. Of course, it wasn’t only Caucasian Americans that were susceptible, and the second half of the book follows the spread of the disease to such distant places as Mexico and the Pacific coast. There is also evidence that Native Americans were subjected to germ warfare by the American ruling class.
Pox Americana is not a pleasant book, but it is a well researched study, one that provides new information about a little known crisis in a competent, readable style and format. Without Washington’s foresight, our national anthem might yet be God Save the Queen.