The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss
The earliest mention of what seems to have been smallpox came in 1350 BC. Between that time and 1702 fully one tenth of all humans had been affected in some degree by the disease. In the 16th Century alone, smallpox killed an estimated average of 400,000 Europeans each year.
1721 saw a remarkable confluence of another smallpox epidemic that ultimately changed the course of medicine, witnessed the invention of American journalism, and sowed the seeds of independence. It began a slow grind toward the World Health Organization’s statement in 1979 that the disease had been essentially wiped out.
In The Fever of 1721, Stephen Coss writes, “There is no single history of anything. Our best chance at understanding important events and persons is by way of rigorous study of the known facts together with a kind of triangulation of complementary and disparate interpretation of those facts.” While there have been other accounts of the fight against smallpox, The Fever of 1721 is the first to tie the revolution against Britain and the revolution against Euro-centric medicine together. Coss does so in a readable and well-researched story that relies heavily on primary sources such as newspapers, government records, diaries, letters, and maps. One may deduce a bibliography from the extensive notes, but there is no comprehensive list of sources, which is a great failing.
Cotton Mather, Zabdiel Boylston, Benjamin Franklin, and Elisha Cook form the nexus of Coss’s story. Cook, trained as a physician and businessman, was writing pamphlets challenging the Crown for control of the Colonies. Franklin, who was apprenticed to his brother James, had become a printer almost by accident, a story Coss places in context. Boylston was the only doctor willing to try the radical method of incision or inoculation as a means of mitigating the effects of smallpox. The story of how that came to be centers on Mather.
The middle-aged Mather, for example, was a hellfire preacher with baggage, having figured too prominently in the Salem witch trials. As a teenager he had seen the effects of the 1677 epidemic in which nearly 25% of the population were infected by smallpox and nearly 17% died. In 1721 he was not a happy man. Debts were mounting, his health was poor, he was in a miserable marriage, his congregation was leaving, and he was assailed by political attacks. Two wives and nine children had died, and yet he was within weeks of his final hour.
Despite his very conservative, fundamentalist version of Christianity — ubiquitous at the time — Mather was more forward thinking as a scientist. Having worked hard to become a member of the Royal Society in London, he saw the eruption of 1721 as an opportunity to test a 1716 RS paper on inoculation. Onesimus, a family slave who had been inoculated by incision in Africa as a boy, was testament to the procedure’s efficacy. Mather’s letters to local physicians were met with silence until Boylston, having read the materials provided by Mather, agreed to try the method on his son and on his slave Jack and his son. Boylston had nearly died from smallpox as a young man and fully understood the ravages that might ensue. The procedure had been around in some form for seven hundred years but was rejected by physicians since it was developed and practiced by “heathens.”
In a remarkable first book, Stephen Coss has brought together the stories of the rise of Colonial revolutionary fever and the very real fever and fear of smallpox. Europeans brought it to the New World where it wiped out native tribes and, in repeated waves, decimated the newcomers. Speaking of that time, Thomas Babington Macaulay called smallpox “the most terrible of all the ministers of death…filling the churchyard with corpses….” Coss vividly brings that description to life.
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