THE FEVER OF 1721 by Stephen Coss


The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
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In his debut, Wisconsin-based historian Coss examines the Colonial smallpox epidemic and how it influenced the forging of American identity and politics.

The outbreak of smallpox in Boston in 1721, though long overdue, caused panic and coverup, as reported in this compelling though slightly overlong narrative. The HMS Seahorse was certainly carrying smallpox-infested passengers from England when shipmates were allowed to shuttle into Boston in April, spreading the virus around town and causing outbreak by May. The eminent minister Cotton Mather, undergoing personal crises at this point (even though the trauma of the Salem witch trials were 30 years behind him) and still determined to continue progress in the community through his effective leadership, grasped the efficacy of inoculation through Royal Society articles and began to promote it. Meanwhile, a crusading Boston physician and apothecary, Zabdiel Boylston, resolved to attempt the inoculation procedure, using his own son and slave as patients, in defiance of the town meeting that condemned the procedure. (Inoculation had already been undertaken in London.) James Franklin (Benjamin’s older brother), the Boston publisher of the New-England Courant, first attacked the cause of inoculation and let the public controversy within his pages fuel his circulation. All these public-health events foamed around the ongoing resentment of the vilified governor, Samuel Shute, who was battling for supremacy in the Massachusetts House. Franklin’s “taunting and belligerent” Courant offered outrageous editorial commentary on a running dispute over official reaction to meeting Native-American aggression, and the publisher was jailed as a result. Coss valiantly weaves these threads together, though these are only some of the many roiling disputes of the day; in the end, the convergence entailing Franklin’s Courant seems somewhat forced. Nonetheless, Coss offers a fascinating glimpse inside the Boston mindset of the era.

A solid first book in which impressive documentation undergirds an ambitious assertion.

Pub Date: March 8th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8308-6
Page count: 356pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2015


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