Academic level – Graduate
Type of paper – Essay (opinion essay)
Topic Title – “Pox Americana” by Elizabeth Anne Fenn
Instructions: Write an opinion essay on Fenn, Elizabeth Anne. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. Chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4. The source material is attached here
Please note: You are not required to read and comment on the entire text.)
No other sources are required. The point of the opinion essays is to discuss your personal reaction to the book – what you felt about it, what you liked and didn’t like, and why.
These essays are not intended to be an objective analysis of the book, but rather a purely personal reaction to it. The essay is a minimum of 500 words, and a maximum of 750 words. The opinion essay is not a research paper – that is, there is no need for a bibliography or citations (unless you quote directly from the book).
Essay shall be typed, double-spaced, and in a 12-point Times New Roman font, with one-inch margins.
In her book, Fenn explores the history of the first alleged smallpox epidemic in North America. It coincided with the American Revolutionary War. Although it had destructive impacts on society, rivaling the devastation brought by the war, it ironically remains mostly forgotten by the general public. Fenn offers an engaging and thoughtful examination of this historical event.
One crucial strength of this book is the abundance of examples and in-depth explanations. Throughout the reading, Fenn (2001) illustrates how dangerous smallpox was and why it seemed to spread so quickly. I appreciate her attention to the harm brought by traditional Native American remedies, such as sweat baths. In such a way, Fenn highlights the factors beyond the minimum natural immunity, contributing to a more nuanced understanding of that epidemic. More importantly, this discussion highlights the immense impact of customs and conscious social choices on the prevalence and progression of many illnesses. This observation gains a new degree of significance amid the Covid-19 pandemic and the results of its mismanagement. I realized that the lack of proper treatment remains a severe problem even today.
Another noteworthy detail is the description of the gruesome and risky inoculation procedure. It was an early alternative that existed before vaccination. Fenn examines the dilemmas that individuals and communities faced when deciding whether to undergo inoculation. The description of all complications made me realize the extent of the dangerousness of life in pre-industrial society and the disturbing trade-offs individuals and communities had to manage on a daily basis. This detail also made me appreciate the safety of modern vaccination. Concerns about vaccine safety emerge occasionally. Yet, Fenn’s book showed me (and hopefully other readers) what a privileged situation modern generations enjoy.
I also liked Fenn’s attention to quarantine measures and the way they help understand modern policies. When the pandemic started, lockdowns and other restrictions faced immense opposition. Although I favored restrictions, I still found some initiatives bizarre and illogical. However, Fenn’s exploration of quarantine throughout the book helped me realize that quarantine has a long history. Multiple chapters mention quarantine or describe the devastation that followed whenever it failed. Fenn effectively frames quarantine as a standard first response to epidemic events for many centuries. In such a way, Fenn’s book deserves praise for explaining why this controversial measure is so popular. It gave me a different perspective on the Covid-related restrictions, presenting them as a surprisingly normal occurrence, not an unprecedented anomaly, as many media might suggest.
However, my favorite aspect of the book was the revelation that the American Revolutionary War involved the battle of not only armies and economies but also smallpox control measures. It was astonishing to learn that the British army’s attempt to spread smallpox and Washington’s attempts to stop the infection were a significant part of the conflict. The success of inoculation and other measures strongly shaped the U.S. victory. I consider this detail extremely meaningful because it shows that the U.S. as a nation might have emerged thanks to successful quarantines and other organized measures. This fact challenges the narrative that mass vaccinations or restrictions could contradict traditional American values, such as personal liberty.
In conclusion, Fenn’s book is engaging and insightful, helping understand the severity of the smallpox epidemic and its role in the Revolutionary War. I liked the reading because of its attention to detail and the living experiences of different groups, not to mention the exploration of the importance of quarantine measures and vaccination. Fenn shows how effective collective action can prevent extreme individual suffering and benefit the entire society.
Fenn, E. A. (2001). Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. Hill and Wang.