Stephen Coss’ THE FEVER OF 1721: THE EPIDEMIC THAT REVOLUTIONIZED MEDICINE AND AMERICAN POLITICS
A book review by Dennis D. McDonald
This book’s blurb states that 1721 was a crucial year leading up to the American Revolution in 1776. It tells how Boston’s deadly smallpox epidemic was a crucible for medical, political, and social forces that would inevitably lead to breaking away from Great Britain.
On the face of it such a sentiment sounds suspiciously like overstatement intended to sell books. But by the time you finish reading this meticulously researched book you will have to agree.
Boston in 1721 was a focal point for a wide range of conflicts. One was the role of the press, specifically, a maverick newspaper (the New-England Courant) run by Benjamin Franklin’s brother and then by Benjamin himself.
The details of how this newspaper resisted efforts by the British-sponsored colonial government to control news not only about the smallpox epidemic but about the workings of the local government itself are fascinating. You cannot help but read about these events (including the imprisonment of the paper’s editor by the local government) and compare them with today’s government sanctioned attacks on the free press.
The main focus of the book is on Boston’s deadly smallpox epidemic and the attempts by a lone physician (Zabdiel Boylston) to introduce inoculation using live viral materials into healthy individuals as a means of generating long-term immunity to the disease. Resistance to this approach was significant. Most other newspapers of the day were loathe to print details of the extent of the disease for fear of generating panic. Significant resistance to experimental inoculation also came initially from both religious and medical establishments -- until members of those establishments themselves began to succumb from the deadly disease.
The author navigates what might otherwise be a very confusing tale by focusing on a few key individuals who, presumably, wrote or were written about frequently in private journals and letters. The detail is well organized and constantly propels the story along..
This book is an impressive work that combines history, medicine, politics, and government censorship in a very compelling way. Highly recommended.
Review copyright © 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald