Monday, August 1, 2011

#49: Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich

New York: Penguin Press, 2011. 404 pages

Pox focuses on the rampant smallpox epidemics in the United States from 1900-1903. From a medical standpoint, the book is fascinating and gives an excellent shorthand history of vaccination and the disease in American life. Michael Willrich's prose is reminiscent of a disaster novel, with good pacing and excellent characters. The description of C.P. Wertenbaker, the leader of vaccinations for the U.S. Marine Hospital service, burning his cap and respirator after examining children is chilling. (75-76).

All in all, if Hollywood gets hold of this, it will focus on the fear of the pox. Wertenbaker (no doubt played by some man who will appear shirtless for no reason) will get in fights, expose corrupt local health boards...wait a minute, he actually did that. But Hollywood will turn him into some Kung-Fu master, turn his wife into some late 19th century Uber-hottie and then supply Wertenbaker with some "Chocolate Fantasy" on the side. Sleazebags.

That would ignore the really good history in this book, which dominates the second half of the text. The U.S. was hip deep in the Spanish American War, The Philippine Insurrection and immigration during this time, and many of the people involved fared differently on vaccination. The government stepped in to force certain segments to be vaccinated, creating multiple court cases and key questions about government's role in public health. In general, African Americans and recent immigrants were targeted by health boards as "causes" of the outbreaks. Factories throughout the country would routinely simply shut down if one of their workers came down with the pox, causing families to loose money and sometimes their houses. (218-224). Indeed, smallpox was termed "Nigger Itch" by many in the south (44-45).

The meat of the text is this question of governmental influence on individual rights. "A man of progressive temperament is an advocate of organization, the man of conservative temperament is an individualist...real liberty for the laborer requires labor organization." (306-07) Willrich includes excellent discussions of the Slaughterhouse Cases, which found that the 14th Amendment did not apply to states, only to the federal government, dissents for which influenced arguments against mandatory vaccination. All in all, this book is topical and highly recommended. We seem to be engaged in the same discussion of individual rights vs. collective responsibility; this text gives a good synopsis of both sides of the issue through the prism of anti-immigrant and racial bias.

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