Nonfiction Worth Reading: Pox Americana, by Elizabeth E. Fenn

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

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.

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3 thoughts on “Nonfiction Worth Reading: Pox Americana, by Elizabeth E. Fenn

  1. tonymarkp says:

    Did the book make any comparisons to earlier European-American contact? Columbus brought smallpox with him to the Americas in 1492 which killed a lot of natives in modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti. The same happened with further exploration in North America and South America in the 16th and 17th centuries. There is plenty of evidence to show, for example, that the Spanish conquest of Mexico was thanks to smallpox. Given this precedent, it’s no surprise the British hoped for a similar outcome, given that they were aware of how the Spanish Empire accidentally rose on the pillars of smallpox. Very tragic and horrid. Thanks to it, inoculation and then vaccination were discovered as a method for medicine to fight disease, though, which is weirdly the bright side.

  2. Not specifically. She alluded to it , as well as to the multiple other diseases that were so destructive, but she did a good job staying on topic . This did not strike me as a comparitive study.

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