Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Book Sheds Light on Turn of the Century Epidemic

I spent the all of yesterday writing a paper and working on a project, so I didn't have time to write anything profound. Instead, I'm providing a link to an article from (where else?) NPR.

The article is about an interview I heard last night on "Fresh Air" with Michael Willrich, the author of the book Pox: An American History, which is an exploration of a smallpox epidemic in the early 20th century. The book looks at how the American government vaccinated people against their will, sometimes at gunpoint, especially in the African American communities in the South. It attempts to answer the question: when does looking after the good of the American public begin to infringe on people's civil rights?

It sounds really interesting, although I have no idea when I'd be able to fit it in. I may keep this on my list for next year.



  1. That does sound like an interesting conversation. I have a question that my stir peoples emotions:

    Did it work? Did their method of vaccinating people work? And in what way would you have fixed the epidemic had you been in charge of it all? Because it sounds to me, like they got the job done.

    Yes, I am heartless and cruel for all those who are offended.

  2. The problem was twofold, from what I understand.

    First, the smallpox virus had mutated by that point into a less deadly form. Instead of killing 30% of infected people, it only killed about 2%. Yes, it's still people dying, but it's a vast improvement. Usually viruses mutate into stronger, more resistant strains. This one, for whatever reason, was much weaker.

    To go along with this, at that time the smallpox vaccine wasn't a shot. (Gross-out alert!) They would infect cows with the virus, wait for pustules to develop on the udders, and then collect the puss that drained out of them. To administer the vaccine, they would scrap off part of your skin and spread this stuff on the area. The vaccines were not administered by a doctor in an office but, instead, were given to people on the street and in work places. At the turn of the century, these were not clean or sterile environments. The vaccine actually killed a lot of people and for a weakened, less deadly strain I don't know if that's acceptable.

    The other issue is that total compulsory vaccination does not necessarily kill a virus or stop it from spreading, especially if the vaccine is killing people or, in some cases, actually helping to spread the virus. Also, they mostly targeted the African-American community, especially in the South, despite the fact that white people were just as likely to contract the virus. It was more of a race/power struggle and didn't actually help much to alleviate the virus as much as it helped to segregate the black population. In order to pass through a Southern city at that time, African-Americans had to have documentation and/or a vaccination scar or else they were not allowed to travel in that city. Whites were not restricted in the same way, nor were they forcibly vaccinated as much. It seems to me that if you're really trying to eradicate a virus that you wouldn't pick and choose the people who were to be vaccinated and quarantined.

    I wouldn't say that you're heartless and cruel. If it weren't for the fact that a) it didn't help much and b) it targeted people in a racially biased way, I would say that trying to vaccinate as many people as possible would be a pragmatic way to try and combat a virus. But the vaccine was often as ineffective as it was disgustingly acquired so I'm going to say that the only job they really got done was to infringe on civil liberties and increase the power of the federal government in the South.

  3. I don't think it was for racial reasons as much as it was for the reason that African-Americans were a newer group of people being introduced into America(unlike the Irish, French, Germans, English and such). People were afraid and wondering why, all of a sudden, there was this epidemic. Plus their researching abilities were quite simple compared to today. Everyone (or mostly everyone),today,knows that a disease can be transmitted though animals and bugs faster than through humans. They probably assumed that it was the African-American population spreading it, because they were the newer group.

    That is a nasty was to vaccinate people. (yuck)

    Overall, people were scared, did what they thought would work, as soon as they possibly could, with whatever info they had. Maybe not the wisest way to go, but at least they did something. Anything is better than nothing.

  4. And yes, I know that this all happened in the early 20th century. The African-Americans are always going to be a "newer group" (race, whatever else you want to call it) in America. And there will be even newer groups, races...etc...after them. Just thought I'd make that clear.

  5. At first I wasn't sure what you meant, but when I read it again I realized that you were saying that, until the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were confined mostly to plantations and were not living alongside the general population.

    I disagree with the idea that this wasn't about race, though, because the Jim Crow Laws were still in effect in the South at this point (they weren't repealed until the 1960s) and because the South was still struggling to rebuild after the Civil War and blamed blacks as well as northerners for their financial problems. As there weren't many northerners below the Mason-Dixon line, they took their aggression out on African-Americans.

    I agree, however, that people were scared. Past smallpox epidemics had devastated populations and the majority of people didn't realize that this wasn't the same virus as it had once been. When fear takes hold, people sometimes don't think clearly. This could all have been a matter of people being afraid, but there were still racial undertones, mostly because the Civil War had only been over for a little under forty years.

    I think I'm just going to go pick up the book and read it. I'll probably have to save it for a few months but I don't know if I want to wait until next year.

  6. Okay, I will admit I did not think about the Jim Crow Laws.

  7. That's all right. I'm just a really big dork who thinks/reads about history far more than is healthy. The fact that you didn't think about them shows that you are a much more normal individual than I am. LOL

    I wanted to share something with you that I found in the book I'm currently reading. It's completely off this topic, but I don't feel like switching over to the post where it *would* be on topic.

    This is from the book I'm reading by the Dalai Lama. He's talking about the creation of the universe and it made me think about what you'd said about science being proof of God:

    "Some say that it happened just by chance. Now that position in itself is illogical because if anything exists by chance, then it is tantamount to saying that things do not have any causes. But we see from our everyday lives that everything has a cause: Clouds cause rain, the wind blows seeds around so that new plants grow. Nothing exists without any reason."

  8. I like the quote. I wish I could share one with you. But I'd want to share the whole book. I think you would like it. Its called the screwtape letters. Very creepy, but I love it. And yes its "christian" but I think you'd like the thoughtful challenge.

  9. C.S. Lewis is an absolute genius. I've never read The Screwtape Letters but I've heard good things...from Christians and non-Christians alike. I love satire of any type so I'd definitely be up to reading it.

    Now I just need to figure out when I'll have time. :)

    I'm thinking of adding a To Be Read page to this blog so that I can keep track of all the books that people are recommending to me as well as the ones that I see/hear about from other sources. I might not get to some of them for another twenty years, but they'll at least be in a central location where they can badger me to read them.

  10. Only his Narnia books but I've had several friends who have read some of his other works and they really like him. He's one of those authors who is Christian but who can be enjoyed by a wide, even non-religious, audience.

    In fact, it's funny that you mentioned him because earlier today I was planning my Three Books list for next Thursday and I decided that it was going to be called "Christian Writers that Everyone Can Enjoy" and I was going to put him on the list. I figured that it was an appropriate topic for a month spent reading about different religions and devoted to promoting interfaith relations.

  11. Oh. Hehehe. If that's why you think you like won't like him at all.

    What school did you say you go to?

  12. I actually didn't say. It has nothing to do with me worrying that some rabid fan is going to come track me down and everything to do with the fact that occasionally I complain about the place. I'm staff there as well as a student and I don't want Human Resources (or Admissions) to have a fit. :)

  13. Oh, haha. Sorry.

    I was asking because I have a friend who goes to Rochester University...I was just curious. Anyway, I don't want to get you in trouble, so never mind... :]

  14. Don't worry about it. I don't know for a fact that there would be an issue, but I've heard far to many stories of people losing their jobs because they complained about their place of work online.

    The issue isn't really my workplace, though. I love where I work. It's the school itself, and even then there isn't a whole lot that I have a problem with.

    I've only been to U of R once and it was the most confusing campus I've ever experienced. Plus parking costs are ridiculous.