Fenn, Elizabeth A. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. 1st ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Wehrman, Andrew M. The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.

In their authoritative monographs, Elizabeth A. Fenn and Andrew M. Wehrman assert that assessing the disastrous impact of Smallpox epidemics is essential to understanding life in eighteenth-century America. Coincident with the Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783, large disease outbreaks occurred in the thirteen colonies and indigenous societies throughout North America. The two authors researched and interpreted the disease effects, including incidence, mortality, and impact on larger social, political, and economic development during America’s founding period. While the two books stand independently, Elizabeth Fenn provides a broad-based, continental view, including colonist and native populations stretching from Mexico to Canada. On the other hand, Andrew Wehrman focuses on smallpox’s effect on the British, Loyalists, and Rebels clash within the rebellious thirteen colonies.

One notable aspect of Pox Americana is its focus on the impact of the disease on Native American populations. Fenn devotes significant attention to how smallpox was introduced to and spread among indigenous communities and how it affected their cultures and ways of life. She describes that smallpox devasted Northwest Indians and other societies, with up to ninety percent or more of the people perishing due to the rampant epidemic. The utter destruction of indigenous communities is a unique perspective not as thoroughly covered in other books on smallpox. Another strength of Pox Americana is an overview of the medical or scientific aspects of the disease. She describes transmission, incubation, disease progression, and mortality estimates. In particular, she provides an informative chart depicting the thirty-two-day period of disease progression from first exposure to the final endpoint (recovery or death).

In his new book The Contagion of Liberty, Andrew M. Wehrman argues that smallpox epidemics rivaled anti-British angst in Revolutionary America and that understanding the devastating impact of smallpox outbreaks is equally important as studying the Revolutionary War battles. Additionally, he describes the controversies over local community inoculation and disease management, which subsumed interest in the broader anti-British contest during specific periods of intense smallpox epidemics in many towns and areas. Wehrman describes that many colonial societies viewed inoculation through economic class distinctions as, many times, only the wealthiest members could afford the physician charges and a month-long quarantine period without income.

One of the most interesting passages is General George Washington’s metamorphosis from an opponent to a proponent of inoculating the Continental Army within a few short months. The British needed no transition in thinking as their officers routinely required smallpox inoculations. Wehrman believes that inoculating the Rebel soldiers played a significant role in sustaining the Patriot cause. As a result, the 1775-76\\ smallpox-infected Canadian invasion failures did not repeat. While Washington benefited from a healthier army, failing to inoculate enslaved Americans resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths. Additionally, there were no public health initiatives to inoculate Native Americans, who perished by the tens of thousands.

Fenn’s and Wehrman’s monographs are scholarly written and supported but readable by the general public. One of the best attributes of the Central Michigan University professor’s work is that he recognized building upon the work pioneered by Elizabeth Fenn and prominently acknowledged her “invaluable review (333).”

I strongly recommend both books to those interested in learning more about the societies in which the American Revolution occurred. Readers interested in the broad impact of smallpox on North American populations will enjoy Pox Americana. Alternatively, those more focused on the Revolutionary War participants will benefit more from The Contagion of Liberty.

Authoritative sources