Pox Americana by Elizabeth A. Fenn
The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

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The astonishing, hitherto unknown truths about a disease that transformed the United States at its birth

A horrifying epidemic of smallpox was sweeping across the Americas when the War of Independence began, and yet we know almost nothing about it. Elizabeth A. Fenn is the first historian to reveal how deeply variola affected the outcome of the war in every colony and the lives of everyone in North America.

By 1776, when military action and political ferment increased the movement of people and microbes, the epidemic worsened. Fenn's remarkable research shows us how smallpox devastated the American troops at Québec and kept them at bay during the British occupation of Boston. Soon the disease affected the war in Virginia, where it ravaged slaves who had escaped to join the British forces. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington had to decide if and when to attempt the risky inoculation of his troops. In 1779, while Creeks and Cherokees were dying in Georgia, smallpox broke out in Mexico City, whence it followed travelers going north, striking Santa Fe and outlying pueblos in January 1781. Simultaneously it moved up the Pacific coast and east across the plains as far as Hudson's Bay.

The destructive, desolating power of smallpox made for a cascade of public-helath crises and heartbreaking human drama. Fenn's innovative work shows how this mega-tragedy was met and what its consequences were for America.


About Elizabeth A. Fenn

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Elizabeth A. Fenn teaches history at George Washington University. The author of Natives and Newcomers, she lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
Published October 2, 2002 by Hill and Wang. 384 pages
Genres: History, Professional & Technical. Non-fiction

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If not for variola major, the virus that causes smallpox, the American colonies may have achieved independence from Britain a lot sooner.

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Publishers Weekly

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In this engaging, creative history, Fenn (Natives and Newcomers) addresses an understudied aspect of the American Revolution: the intimate connection between smallpox and the war.

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Project MUSE

With such a high percentage of casualties emerging from Mexican sources, it might have greatly strengthened the author's narrative and argument if she had explored the central Spanish archives for reports on the extent of the epidemic.

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Project MUSE

This is the subject that Elizabeth Fenn, after extensive and impressive research, addresses in this valuable new investigation of the smallpox virus, Variola major, and its rapacious spread to all corners of the North American continent between 1775 and 1782.

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Project MUSE

While Fenn wisely does not credit smallpox with all of the war’s victories and defeats, her discussion of the epidemic points out the importance of smallpox as one of many contingencies that shaped the course of events.

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