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POX AMERICANA by Elizabeth Anne Fenn

POX AMERICANA

The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

By Elizabeth Anne Fenn

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8090-7820-1
Publisher: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A pox-centric history of the American Revolution.

If not for variola major, the virus that causes smallpox, the American colonies may have achieved independence from Britain a lot sooner. Fenn (History/George Washington Univ.) contends that the sickness, especially in the early days of the Revolution, was one of General George Washington’s worst enemies. In two major battles at the outset of the war—in Boston and Quebec—it almost ruined the Continental Army, which was composed of American-born recruits who had not developed immunity to the Old World virus. British troops and German mercenaries, on the other hand, were almost always immune. The author deals with the enormous organization required to handle soldiers who contracted the disease. Inoculation was proven to work in the late-18th century, but it knocked out those inoculated for a few weeks, hardly the best situation for an army on the move. When Washington finally ordered mass inoculations—rubbing a bit of flesh from a smallpox sufferer into a healthy person’s open wound—it was the first such mass public-health campaign in American history. Loyalist forces suffered also, however, including the British-backed Ethiopian Regiment, a force of freed slaves who, if they hadn’t been laid low by the pox, might well have turned the tide of the Revolution in the South. Fenn also uses smallpox to show how interconnected the world was in 1776: A pox epidemic that probably came from infected material or people from New Orleans started in Mexico City in 1779. Colonists moving throughout New Spain then spread it across North America, with cases cropping up in traders in the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. The real losers in the battle against smallpox were Native Americans, who were particularly susceptible to the virus because of their close genetic similarities. Most tribes had already suffered from smallpox before the Revolution, however, with at least one tribe dwindling in number from 100,000 to 17,000 between 1600 and 1680.

An excellent study that complicates the heroic portrayal of the Revolution.