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Extended Audio Sample Pox: An American History, by Michael Willrich Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (181 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Michael Willrich Narrator: K. Todd Freeman Publisher: Penguin Random House Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date: March 2011 ISBN: 9781101432471
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The untold story of how America’s Progressive-era war on smallpox sparked one of the great civil liberties battles of the twentieth century

At the turn of the last century, a powerful smallpox epidemic swept the United States from coast to coast. The age-old disease spread swiftly through an increasingly interconnected American landscape: from southern tobacco plantations to the dense immigrant neighborhoods of northern cities to far-flung villages on the edges of the nascent American empire. In Pox, award-winning historian Michael Willrich offers a gripping chronicle of how the nation’s continent-wide fight against smallpox launched one of the most important civil liberties struggles of the twentieth century. 

At the dawn of the activist Progressive era and during a moment of great optimism about modern medicine, the government responded to the deadly epidemic by calling for universal compulsory vaccination. To enforce the law, public health authorities relied on quarantines, pesthouses, and “virus squads”—corps of doctors and club-wielding police. Though these measures eventually contained the disease, they also sparked a wave of popular resistance among Americans who perceived them as a threat to their health and to their rights. 

At the time, antivaccinationists were often dismissed as misguided cranks, but Willrich argues that they belonged to a wider legacy of American dissent that attended the rise of an increasingly powerful government. While a well-organized antivaccination movement sprang up during these years, many Americans resisted in subtler ways—by concealing sick family members or forging immunization certificates. Pox introduces us to memorable characters on both sides of the debate, from Henning Jacobson, a Swedish Lutheran minister whose battle against vaccination went all the way to the Supreme Court, to C. P. Wertenbaker, a federal surgeon who saw himself as a medical missionary combating a deadly—and preventable—disease.

As Willrich suggests, many of the questions first raised by the Progressive-era antivaccination movement are still with us: How far should the government go to protect us from peril? What happens when the interests of public health collide with religious beliefs and personal conscience? In Pox, Willrich delivers a riveting tale about the clash of modern medicine, civil liberties, and government power at the turn of the last century that resonates powerfully today.

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Listener Opinions

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Dmknoell | 1/27/2014

    " fantastic history - readable and accessible and so current "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 stephanie | 1/27/2014

    " interesting albeit a little boring. I'd doze off at least once every time I sat to read this. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Shannon | 1/25/2014

    " The history of vaccine (and specifically, compulsory vaccination) is absolutely fascinating, and Willrich gives a great, nuanced history of this in America. Parts of the book moved slowly, but it's a good read nonetheless. How about a high five for not having to have small pox? Hells yes. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Angie | 12/31/2013

    " I found most of the information in this book to be quite repetitive with preceding paragraphs and pages. Although quite a lot could be examined with the struggle between compulsory vaccination and individual rights, the development of the smallpox vaccine (and vaccines in general), the link (or lack thereof) between vaccinations and disease, social and racial disparity in the health care system, the eradication of smallpox, or the impact of colonization on world health, this was an unengaging attempt to do all at once - and failed on all levels. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 Holly | 11/26/2013

    " A thoughtful look at the history of compulsory vaccination in the United States in the early 20th century. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 David Meyers | 11/25/2013

    " Very interesting topic that will fascinate people ranging from public health professionals to social justice advocates, but the writing is a little dry. "

  • 1 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 51 out of 5 Michelle | 4/20/2013

    " Just a bit too much about the smallpox for me right now; book has begun to drag. Maybe I'll finish it one day. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Tory | 4/18/2013

    " It was an interesting read, albeit tedious at times. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 Judith | 12/12/2012

    " Thrilling read, seriously. I learned so much history: of pox, the development of public health oversight, the development of consumer affairs, the rift between individual liberties vs. social good, and more. Powerfully important stuff that more people should know. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Nicole | 8/31/2012

    " A good book for those with an interest in public health history in the United States or vaccination in general. I got more than half way, but got bored in the chapter about Small Pox vaccination during the Spanish American War. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Laura | 7/21/2012

    " Started out ok but got boring and repetitive. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 Jean | 3/3/2012

    " Interesting take but writing kinda drags in places - gets caught up in details instead of moving the narrative along. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Lauren orso | 1/5/2012

    " I wanted Ghost Map and I got a textbook. The founding of public health, early antivaccinationism and all the race/class aspects of vaccinations were really interesting, but oh my god this was a slog "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Lily | 12/10/2011

    " A very interesting book (written by my professor!) about a very specific moment in time: the pox outbreak and the government's reaction to it. Not bad! And I love the class so much. "

  • 3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 Nicole | 4/24/2011

    " A good book for those with an interest in public health history in the United States or vaccination in general. I got more than half way, but got bored in the chapter about Small Pox vaccination during the Spanish American War. "

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