Book Review: The Fever of 1721

BookReviewLogoReview by Kasandra Lambert

In his debut book, The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics (Simon & Shuster, 2016), writer Stephen Coss highlights and emphasizes the interconnectedness between the smallpox outbreak of 1721 and the first independent newspaper in the colonies that would become the United States. To change the course of medicine and potentially lay groundwork for the later American Revolution, In this work of narrative non-fiction, Coss demonstrates how an entire cast of characters, ranging from a minister, to an outcast doctor, to newspaper publishers, to a young Benjamin Franklin were involved in the crisis and controversy of smallpox.

25814342The book describes how minister Cotton Mather, a man with a negative reputation after the Salem Witch Trials, was determined to clear his name by preventing the spread of smallpox using inoculation. Inoculation requires an individual without smallpox to purposely be exposed, hopefully resulting in a milder form of disease. Mather finds an ally in Zabdiel Boylston, a physician who lacked formal education. Coss describes how Bolyston collected the smallpox sample writing, “At first light he had gone to the sickroom, of a smallpox patient approximately twelve days into a regular or ‘distinct’ outbreak of disease — one whose vesicles were fully formed and ripe but still white and fluid, not yellow and malodorous — and using a ‘fine cut sharp toothpick’ instead of a lancet…he sliced open several fully emerged blisters at the side and pressed them so as to express their matter into the end of a quill” (91). Bolyston and Mather have a successful trial, with Bolyston’s son being the first patient, but it is met by mixed reviews from the Boston public.

Most vocal against the inoculation trials was James Franklin, the older brother of Benjamin Franklin. James Franklin began the first independent newspaper, one not approved or solicited by the government (colonial or crown). Much like the tabloid magazines of today, Franklin attacks Mather and Bolyston, satirizing and questioning the practice of purposely exposing healthy individuals to smallpox. The newspaper “mocked the fulsome praise praise the doctor had received from the ministers, saying that they regarded him as though he were ‘some Romantick character,’ and declaring their plaudits so preposterous that most Bostonians took them as a joke. He warned that in staking their reputations on so unworthy a medical procedure they risked doing permanent damage to their standing in the community” (121).

Overall, this nonfiction account of the smallpox epidemic and initiation of America’s first independent newspaper achieves its goal of demonstrating how these two events are intertwined. Additionally, Coss illuminates how these events shaped a young Benjamin Franklin, potentially causing him to be the revolutionist we know him as. There is a large cast of characters to keep track of initially but it soon becomes apparent who the important players are. The Fever of 1721 is more of a pure narrative of historical events rather than a work highlighting  medical achievements of the time. The main focus of the book is on the role of the press during the pre-Revolutionary era; secondarily it explores the smallpox outbreak — but smallpox is considered mostly in the context of its role in the emergence of America’s  first independent newspaper. Coss has clearly done his research surrounding these events, proven by the provision of work cited at the end of the book, organized by chapter. The book is engaging and will appeal to readers interested in American politics as well as the effects of infectious diseases on a population. Undergraduate or graduate students in government, history, or public health might also be keenly interested in this account.

Kasandra Lambert is currently a graduate student at the University of Louisville in Kentucky pursuing a Masters in Bioethics and Medical Humanities. Previously, she has studied public health at the University of Kentucky.

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