Pox Americana is a book by Elizabeth Fenn where she writes about small pox, its effects and spread across the North American continent.

Small Pox was a very dangerous disease at that time. She describes small pox as the deadliest disease to have attacked the world. In her book, she writes about how she came face to face with the disease in the 1770s and 1780s. Fenn uses the book to explain and even play an informatory role by explaining to people just what small pox was and its effects.

Fenn believed that small pox was indeed the deadliest disease in the entire world. She argues that the small pox outbreak affected America and humanity so badly that it could have actually changed or shaped history. The mortality rates were particularly high among Native Americans and Indians because they did not have prior experience with the disease and therefore lacked natural immunity. European invaders on the other hand are reported in the book to have got off more easily because they had prior exposure and some had lifetime immunity. Fenn generally props up small pox as the deadliest disease in the world not even mentioning cancer and other known and more common killer diseases. In her book, Fenn explicitly looks at small pox, its effects and how its spread across America between 1775 and 1782.

Pox Americana as written by Fenn seeks to make it known to the reader the deadly impact small pox had on America. It affected thousands of Americans, Indians and even the invading Europeans in a way that left a stream of deaths that cannot be forgotten. Fenn details the characteristics of the deadly disease (small pox) in terms of outbreaks, infectiousness and severity. Ms Fenn stresses how serious small pox was by pointing out that from the fourteen nineties to seventeen seventies as many as 23 small pox epidemics hit the North American continent. This was obviously a disturbing revelation.

It was not until much later that the masters learned to quarantine the infected persons and prevent them from spreading the then deadly disease. It was later discovered that cutting the skin and rubbing in matter obtained from the Variola virus, from persons who showed mild symptoms, could actually boost immunity to the destructive virus. This went a long way in curbing the then common deaths and gave some hope to the ailing that they could recover. Before this revelation, all the sick were abandoned by their relatives for fear of infection because they under the impression that their sick could never get better. There are a couple of thoughts that Fenn brings out that are highly contested.

One of the most heavily contested thoughts is that she describes small pox as the most dangerous or deadliest disease in the world. Critics argue that there are many other diseases in the world that affect people even more commonly than small pox which were not mentioned in the book. More common diseases like cancer, common cold and malaria were not mentioned as she talked about her supposed ‘deadliest disease’ in the world in pox Americana. It has also been argued that the numbers given in the book about how many people actually died were not confirmed anywhere. All the facts used by Fenn were not referenced or proven. Even Fenn herself was very frank about her methods terming them as speculative. The figures and charts used to show the mortality were therefore widely believed to be inaccurate and exaggerated. Ms Fenn’s sources were mainly journal entries, testimonies; media report photos, some history records and mortality rate charts.

These sources were however not properly backed up and Ms Fenn does not state anywhere in her text that they are indeed accurate Ms Fenn first had her attention drawn to small pox when she was researching on an undergraduate essay on Indians in the Hudson Bay fur trade. It is then that she discovered the recurrence of small pox. The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono, is what inspired her to want to know more about small pox. Ms Fenn then decided to try and revisit the small pox outbreaks and the grave effects they had on the North American population. She was to later learn that these epidemics occurred during the time of the American Revolution. Memories of small pox encounters were therefore more blurred because all this happened during a very defining moment in history; the American Revolution. However unnoticed these epidemics seemed, Ms Fenn found out that indeed these epidemics might have actually influenced history. The small pox strategy during Washington’s invasion of Canada was abandoned when it emerged that it would have had a damaging effect on black slaves who had been nurtured by Britons to fight colonists.

The blacks had no immunity because they did not have previous exposure and would have been devastated by the disease. If small pox had been used in that strife, then history would have been very different now because the entire black unit would have probably been wiped out in an unimaginable disaster. It has been tricky to make any solid inferences on whether the American Revolution would have turned out any differently than it did because most of what small pox is seen to have stopped continually appears to have been inevitable anyway.

It was however still quite a story to tell because Ms Fenn brings out some otherwise unappreciated facts about the nations founding fathers; they used humane methods to hold the armies together. During the war for independence for instance, George Washington decided to have new army recruits inoculated. This is seen by Fenn to have been a very important and humane decision because it probably saved thousands of soldiers and the public population who were inevitably in contact with the soldiers on the move. The virus however eventually caught up with the war and Fenn writes, “It executed an even more stunning maneuver and outflanked the war itself.

” (Fenn, 2001) Ms Fenns story becomes even more compelling when she makes us realize that that was not the first time small pox had haunted us yet it still wreaked havoc each time it did. The readers, who include politicians and leaders, would therefore be a little more prepared to deal with another outbreak be it to civilians or in military action. She reveals very important information on how the masters learned how to deal with small pox using tissue from patients showing mild symptoms. It is this very method that eventually developed and used to completely stamp out small pox years later.

With regard to this subject, it can be safely concluded that Fenn brought out an aspect of history that would have otherwise never seen the light of day. The 1775 to 1782 epidemic is yet another strong point by Fenn. She devotes about half of her text to the diseases’ trail of death all the way from Mexico, Canada, and Hudson Bay region up to Alaska.

This kind of trace entailed a strong zest for knowledge, discovery and as Fenn Puts it “studying events elsewhere on the continent which highlights the geographic and demographic gaps in our historical canon.” (Fenn, 2001). This kind of dedication and hard work is what really shows just how much this kind of contribution is important to society and other scholarly disciplines like History, Social Ethics and Medicine. Ms Fenn clearly understands that interdisciplinary research is the future of the world and goes ahead to pioneer in that respect. Historians, Medics, Politicians and philanthropists a like refer to her text for research and reflection purposes to date. Ms Fenn also presents focus on the disease all through the lands, who spread it and how they spread it. Fenn reckons that the use of new weaponry including horses and other techniques introduced by Europeans could have enhanced the spread of small pox. Indians would carry the virus from their Great Plains residence, for instance, and spread it all over the places they travelled while trading, fighting or just horse riding.

Residents of the Great Plains are expressed to have done most of the spreading bit in the 1775 to 1782 epidemic. She does not however put blame on them but rather blames the increased interaction between the natives, Europeans and other traders. Colonization and missionary work further increased interaction between foreigners and the natives who had very limited or no knowledge at all of small pox.

Ms Fenn observed the diseases’ route right into the pacific North West while trying to establish the original ‘culprits’ who brought the disease to North America. Russian fur traders and Spanish explorers had visited and interacted with the native North Americans but at that time there were no reported cases of small pox; it is therefore unlikely that they brought in the disease. Fenn also rules out the thought that mariners might have conspired to release variola to ‘finish’ the people after they had left.

She fails to detect any signs of epidemics in their native ports and concludes that they could not possibly be the source of small pox. Establishing who might have brought or probably developed small pox was evidently a hard task. Fenn used all kind of methods to narrow down the list of ‘culprits’ although she did not for sure credibly establish who transmitted it to North America. Although widely believed to be inspired by public awareness on killer diseases like breast cancer and AIDS, researchers would have easily been inspired be Pox Americana to research more on epidemics that rocked the world in the past.

Diseases introduced by invaders or native diseases have wiped out almost all the non-indigenous populations. European invaders introduced fatal viruses while visiting missionaries in Africa, for example, were badly hit by tropical diseases like malaria. Military camps were more adversely affected by small pox because they were very crowded and offered easy means of transmitting the highly communicable disease. In the book, Fenn does not imply a bed of roses for the native North Americans when invaders from Europe came in, but instead focuses on the bigger picture and doesn’t even mention how British commanders attempted to start biological wars by trying to intentionally spread small pox. This would have been a very interesting and important subject especially at this time in history. Biological warfare is still controversial to date and this would have been a definite topic for fierce debate. It is not clear in her text if there is any connection between the small pox outbreaks in the north and those experienced in the south and other parts of the American continent .She also does not touch on any trends in the outbreaks or infection rates in her text.

It would then seem that maybe these outbursts had no relationship whatsoever or maybe she did not have enough knowledge and resources to trace the disease trends in order to report on this particular subject. From the text as presented by Fenn, it surely can be concluded that small pox must have taken some part in how the American Revolution turned out. All these occurrences and the epidemic outbreaks that broke out before, during and after wars must have a changed something in history which would have definitely been otherwise written in the event that these outbreaks were absent. Events such as deaths from small pox that wiped out entire wars even after the end of the wars must have had a significant impact on civilization and today’s world. The ethics and morals displayed by the military leaders also brought out rich history in the text. Fenn therefore did a great job in not only reminding her readers of how much small pox terrorized the world but also sensitized researchers and historians on past and present epidemics.


Fenn, A. Elizabeth. (2001). Pox Americana.

the Great Small Pox Epidemic of 1775- 82.NY: Hill and Wang.


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