A recent review in The Tyee: The Enduring Politics of Smallpox. Excerpt:
Out of a long-forgotten smallpox outbreak in the U.S. from 1898 to 1903, Michael Willrich has written a combined medical thriller and courthouse drama. Pox: An American History shows us how that outbreak changed American law and politics -- and how little has changed in America since then. A Canadian reader finds important lessons to apply here.
Willrich portrays 1890s America vividly as a nation with grotesque extremes between rich and poor, education and ignorance. This was the Progressive Era, when the elite saw themselves as able (and obliged) to improve the lives of the poor. Science, they believed, had shown the way to rehabilitating criminals, improving housing and working conditions, and especially improving public health.
But 1890s America lacked the institutions to do so. Public health agencies barely existed. The federal government considered epidemics a state and municipal concern. The affluent classes saw diseases like smallpox as ailments of the poor, who had only themselves to blame for their poverty.
But in a world of increasing international trade, travel and migration, America's Progressives knew that the rich couldn't seal themselves off. What's more, they knew that medical technology -- especially vaccination -- could smother a disease like smallpox.
But as Willrich shows, not everyone shared the Progressives' views. Vaccination in one form or another had been used for a century. Doctors didn't really understand smallpox, but they knew that vaccination could protect against it. And they also knew that it could sometimes have catastrophic results.