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I remember when I asked my mom about the round, dappled scar on her upper arm.  She said it was from a vaccination as a child.  I didn’t have one.  All of my shots were just that – shots.  No scars, no lasting pain.  After a small sting, a bandaid and a sticker, it was mostly forgotten.  I could return to the playground and earn a real scrape.

Author Michael Willrich explores a not-so-distant past when smallpox was a scourge among the industrialized American population.  It was either a deadly or a horribly disfiguring disease that traveled easier between victims.  In a time when public health and sanitation were coming to the forefront, smallpox was a key battleground for health officers and politicians alike.

It might seem an unlikely subject for an entire book, yet it is incredibly riveting.  Not only does it explore the medical tendencies of the virus, but how germ theory, diagnostic practices and treatments evolved around this virulent illness.  Willrich describes smallpox eradication from a colonialist perspective with the American possession of Puerto Rico and the Philippines as well as the widespread use in armies as early as the American Revolution.  The history of vaccination (including the etymology) and early 20th century medicine versus “snake-oil” peddlers, are also scrutinized.  The very first pharmaceutical companies (some still in business today) sprung up around the surge in vaccinations.  (In fact, the Barnes Foundation, featured in The Art of the Steal, was set-up by Albert Barnes, who made his fortune by inventing a mild silver nitrate solution, marketed as Argyrol. His collection of art remains unparalleled.)

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Possibly most relevant to today’s readers is the anti-vaccination movement which was as prevalent as the disease itself.  These activists objected to compulsory vaccination on the grounds of personal liberty and religious freedom, but based their arguments largely on unsafe vaccine and secondary infections that were fairly common.  This controversy is not unlike those surrounding childhood vaccinations by parents who either believe in a natural immune system, or contend vaccines cause autism (this has since been proven untrue and the study that suggested it has been debunked as falsified).

Yet despite advances in modern science, there is a psychological skepticism that lingers in the American psyche.  Willrich thoroughly and perceptively pieces together a history that drew class and ethnic lines, despite the disease’s inability to recognize such superficial differences.  It is far more than a book about a virus.  It provides perspective about where we have come from — and possibly where we are headed.
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ISBN 9781594202865 | 400 pages | 31 Mar 2011 | The Penguin Press | 6.14 x 9.25in | 18 – AND UP

Thanks to the folks at Penguin Press for the review copy.

Hear Michael Willrich on NPR.

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