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Pox Americana by Elizabeth A. Fenn

Pox Americana

by Elizabeth A. Fenn

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epidemic, health, medicine
  GeekGoddess | Mar 19, 2014 |
After reading Elizabeth Fenn's "Pox Americana: The great smallpox epidemic of 1775-82", I am inclined to think that General Washington's best decision during the Revolutionary War was to, in current political terminology, flip-flop, on the question of inoculating the Continental Army. When I first heard of this book I fell into the trap of judging it by its cover, I expected to learn how an outbreak of small pox had affected the participants of the Revolutionary War. While the author does that she goes much deeper into the epidemic. She follows the small pox outbreak from 1777 Boston up and down the eastern coast, to the Britain's indigenous allies, across Mexico, up to Canada and nearly into Alaska. Because the documentary evidence in the northwest is fragmentary at best she also looks into a Russian outbreak that reached western Alaska at approximately the same time to determine if it could be responsible for the bones and empty villages that greeted British explorers Vancouver and Puget in 1792.

If Fenn had simply concentrated on the interaction between the Revolution and small pox this would be an important book on an under-examined topic. By following the epidemic across North America she managed to create a fascinating book on a topic, to the best of my knowledge, that had been completely unexamined.

The breadth of the research necessary to uncover the epidemic's footsteps seems overwhelming. She looked at Russian, Spanish, British, French, and US records as well as church, business and personal diaries. Fenn managed to find enough passing references to small pox in this wide variety of sources that her argument tracing the epidemic from European outposts across the vast expanse of the continent still controlled by indigenous Americans, while her evidence does not reach the level of certainty, she managed marshal enough evidence to achieve probability. Considering that there are no direct documentary sources this is an impressive accomplishment.

I confess to being predisposed to like this book after learning in the introduction that the author spent years working as an auto mechanic. It is an experience we share that allowed me to appreciate her ability to take a small clue, a tick on a vacuum gauge, a hissing noise, or a passing reference in a text, and see them as road signs pointing to the solution of a puzzle. I have to recommend "Pox Americana" to anyone interested in the Revolutionary War or in reading a concise account of the interaction of the First Nations with each other and with European colonizers. I found the differences in how Spanish missions and British fur traders dealt with the sick and dying Native Americans surprising.
Fenn's writing is very readable, she uses plain English and generally eschews the obfuscation caused by some academics’ enamourment with polysyllabic verbiage. I found this book included in the syllabi of several medical history classes*; I am not the only one impressed by Fenn's intriguing topic, clear writing and quality scholarship.

* National Library of Medicine; History of Medicine: Online Syllabus Archive ( )
1 vote TLCrawford | Mar 12, 2012 |
I'm American. That can mean a lot of things. That I'm a fat, overindulgent, lazy or stupid? No! What it means is that I've had America's brief history hammered into my brain repeatedly in my 12 years of schooling. We covered the Revolutionary War numerous times, and I like to think I know just a little bit about it. However, I can say definitively that no one ever told me there was a third combatant in the war for my country's freedom. One whose soldiers were countless, who killed indifferently, indiscriminately, and without bias, and claimed more lives than the Continental and British armies combined. The third side, of which I was never taught about, was smallpox.

Smallpox played a subtly important role in the war. Between the fear of attacking a quarantined town and the risk of capturing and imprisoning infected soldiers, there was a lot more caution involved in the war than I ever knew about. Obviously disease has always been a factor in almost every war, but I'm amazed in my many years of American history courses no one ever covered the role of smallpox in a war as important as this one, and that there is so little information about it.

In this regard, Pox Americana is wonderfully enlightening. Elizabeth Fenn has apparently done some heavy research on this relatively neglected topic, and I'm definitely glad she did it. However, I did have a few minor issues with the book. Some of the information just wasn't recorded, mostly things like how the disease effected native Americans, so the author had to play fill-in-the-blank. I've never liked speculations, theories, assumptions, etc in my nonfiction, even if the topic is as interesting as this one. I also felt it was a little dry and I was rather bored throughout the latter half of the book, as it seemed to drag on a bit more than needed, but this is probably just because I'm not a big nonfiction history reader, and tend to get a little bored with the subject.

Regardless, my complaints are small and have more to do with my own reading preferences than how the book was actually written. If you think the topic sounds interesting, I can say Pox Americana is definitely a worthwhile read, especially for fans of American history. Go read it. ( )
18 vote Ape | Jul 12, 2010 |
Reviewed Oct. 2006

Amazing info - some pictures and maps - large index. Apparently my professor attended her lecture when she was a PhD candidate and found her research to be very helpful in teaching American Revolution. I sure learned more about smallpox than I would ever need to know. We discussed this book quite a lot in class and essays. The professor asked...”if you were given 5 minutes to tell someone about the A.R. would you mention smallpox?” We all said “yes,” when asked if we would have before reading this book, we all answered “no.” Our professor feels that Fenn’s argument is that smallpox unified America, not the revolution, smallpox became the common evil. I that that Fenn got carried away with her research topic, she should have stuck with the East coast, and not include the second part dealing with the Native American and the trading routes. Maybe two different books would have been better. Fenn says she included Mexico, West Coast and Native Americans because they are often ignored. But when compared to what was happening on the East Coast I would think that they were right to be ignored. This book really reminded me of the flu book I read a few years ago. Written for popular audience with enough to please historians as well.

24-2006 ( )
2 vote sgerbic | May 8, 2008 |
This is very interesting and informative and a good read. ( )
  Doozer | Mar 8, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080907821X, Paperback)

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across North America when the War of Independence began, and until now we have known almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply Variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone on the continent. Her remarkable research shows us how the disease devastated the American troops at Quebec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston, and how it ravaged slaves in Virginia who had escaped to join the British forces. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington had to decide if and when to attempt the risky inoculation of his troops.

The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-health crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn's innovative work shows how this megatragedy was met and what its consequences were for the young republic.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:17 -0400)

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