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.
The 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. Continue reading “Book Review: The Fever of 1721”