Join us for a fascinating evening of medical, social, and legal history on May 12, when Michael Willrich, PhD, discusses his book POX: An American History (The Penguin Press), which offers a gripping chronicle of how the nation’s continent-wide fight against smallpox in the early 1900s launched one of the most important civil liberties struggles of the twentieth century. Willrich explores the intersection of public health initiatives and private medical decisions as well as the polarizing debate about the morality, ethics, safety, and effectiveness of vaccines. The measures enacted to contain the disease— quarantines, pesthouses, and “virus squads”— sparked a wave of popular resistance among Americans who perceived them as a threat to their health and to their rights.
May 12, 6:30 pm
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia
19 S. 22 Street, Philadelphia
Register for this FREE event at Eventbrite.
At the dawn of the activist Progressive era and during a moment of great optimism about modern medicine, the government responded to the deadly epidemic by calling for universal compulsory vaccination. To enforce the law, public health authorities relied on quarantines, pesthouses, and “virus squads”—corps of doctors and club-wielding police. Though these measures eventually contained the disease, they also sparked a wave of popular resistance among Americans who perceived them as a threat to their health and to their rights.
At the time, antivaccinationists were often dismissed as misguided cranks, but Willrich argues that they belonged to a wider legacy of American dissent that attended the rise of an increasingly powerful government. While a well-organized antivaccination movement sprang up during these years, many Americans resisted in subtler ways—by concealing sick family members or forging immunization certificates. POX introduces us to memorable characters on both sides of the debate, from Henning Jacobson, a Swedish Lutheran minister whose battle against vaccination went all the way to the Supreme Court, to C.P. Wertenbaker, a federal surgeon who saw himself as a medical missionary combating a deadly—and preventable—disease. As Willrich suggests, many of the questions first raised by the Progressive-era antivaccination movement are still with us: How far should the government go to protect us from peril? What happens when the interests of public health collide with religious beliefs and personal conscience? —Penguin Press
About the Speaker
Michael Willrich, PhD, is the author of City of Courts, which won the John H. Dunning Prize awarded by the American Historical Association for the best book on any aspect of U.S. history, and the William Nelson Cromwell Prize awarded by the American Society for Legal History. Currently an associate professor of history at Brandeis University, he worked for several years as a journalist in Washington, D.C., writing for The Washington Monthly, City Paper, The New Republic, and other magazines.