A review by readclever
The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics, by Stephen Coss


If you're unaware of Boston's history and legacy of helping to seed the American Revolution, the book is great. A lot of background on the players, ranging from Cotton Mathers to the Franklins to Elisha Cook's pursuit of an independent colony. All of this political intrigue across a small pox epidemic that would change how the world viewed the illness. While Dr. Boylston performs inoculations, legally and illegally, the press and government wage war in a messy triangle that's nearly impossible to untangle at certain parts.

Coss offers not just many, many primary source information but the connections in a small town of only 13,000. He spends a lot of time making sure readers understand every level of interplay without preaching. For a first book, this is a pretty high standard to beat on his next. What is more interesting is that fact his research offers so much history that schools never teach, like the smallpox epidemics outside the Native American community, and how it could shut or revive a contested government in the blink of an eye.

The most surprising information, for me, was two-fold: learning Mathers' legacy and need for acceptance long after the Salem Witch Trials and how James Franklin's defiance set the stage for press freedom and anti-inoculation rhetoric at the same time. Even as a more middle of the road businessman, Franklin used the paper to not only lampoon authority, including Mathers, but also to create a more sensationalistic view of the news. Meanwhile Mathers battled and lost to demons of old while also winning some prestige, even while not taking it.

In December 1724, a meeting with Ben Franklin offered a smart piece of advice: "Stoop as you go through it [life/world], and you will miss many thumps" (281). The message was clear and offered a lot of profound observation at the end of Mathers' life. The egotistical and vain minister had learned a few lessons in this latest battle for legacy.

Dense and full of ends, the book overs a lot of information I found fascinating as non-American history buff. Definitely worth a read on how American's flagrant ignorance of government ploys helped to create the road to vaccinations and a more critical press.