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Health Crises throughout History (January 2022): Smallpox


Smallpox: A History by S.L. Kotar and J.E. Gessler presents a solid overview of the disease, the development of the vaccine, and the effort to get the vaccine widely accepted and distributed, based on numerous primary sources.  The book focuses on Europe and the United States between the early 1700s (when variolation, the precursor to vaccination, became popular in the West) and the mid 1900s (when the disease was eradicated there). Relatively little attention is paid to the campaign to eradicate the disease or its incidences in the rest of the world.

A second solid option for a general history of smallpox is Angel of Death: The Story of Smallpox, by Gareth Williams.  This book relies less on primary sources but focuses more globally and on the period before vaccinations were developed.

Michael Bennet provides a history of the development of vaccination against smallpox in War against Smallpox: Edward Jenner and the Global Spread of Vaccination.  He focuses on the human networks that led to the quick spread of vaccination and the political power they wielded. Bennet focuses solely on the period surrounding Jenner’s invention of the vaccine and not later efforts.

Smallpox epidemics in the early 20th century United States and the government’s struggle with anti-vaccination movements form the basis of Pox: An American History, by Michael Willrich.  It is hard not to see the many similarities this battle holds to the present period. The book remains clear enough for readers who do not specialize in health sciences.

Colonization of the Americas owes part of its success to the spread of disease from the colonists to the Native Americans. Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–1824 by Paul Kelton focuses solely on the Cherokee nation’s fight against the disease.  This narrow focus allows Kelton to examine in detail the harms caused by colonialism, but also the resistance and success of the Cherokee, and it helps offset the prevalent idea that the majority of Native Americans died accidentally of disease from which they had no immunity.

As one of only two diseases to be eradicated by humans, smallpox presents an almost singular success. House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox deals intensively with the final push to eradicate the disease in Africa and India.  Written by William H. Foege, a former director of the CDC who was one of the leaders of the effort to eradicate smallpox, it presents an interesting first-person account of this major public health success.  

The End of a Global Pox: America and the Eradication of Smallpox in the Cold War Era, by Bob H. Reinhardt, presents the battle to eradicate smallpox from the interesting perspective of cold war geopolitics.  Reinhardt frames his work with an examination of bioterrorism and how that effects public health decisions.

Vaccinations have often been a controversial subject that have been used for political purposes. The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss traces how an experiment in variolation led to the success of America’s first independent newspaper, the New-England Courant.  Coss is more interested in the politics that arose from opposition to variolation and its implications for American notions of independence and self-governance than he is in the smallpox outbreak of 1721.

In Adventures of a Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS Mary Guinan and Anne Mather relate interesting anecdotes from Guinan’s work with the CDC in public health.  While entertaining and a novel perspective on public health work, it does not specifically examine any one disease.

Work Cited