Review: A History of a Smallpox Epidemic in 1721 Boston that Puts Colonial New England Under the Microscope

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics  By Stephen Coss

Simon & Schuster    368 pages

By Edwin Eisendrath

In The Fever of 1721, Stephen Coss has a great deal to say about the smallpox epidemic that struck colonial New England, but his subject is larger.  He describes a confusing, transitional time when Puritan control over Boston was waning, civil society was growing stronger, and political opposition to English governance was taking hold – something he argues was influenced in no small measure by the smallpox crisis.

Coss largely tells his story through a handful of characters who were somehow involved in the epidemic, all of them deeply influential figures in their time.  The two that come through most clearly are James Franklin and his younger brother, Benjamin.  With Ben as a barely willing but brilliant apprentice, James launched The New England Courant, a newspaper that, for the first time in American history, existed as something other than an official mouthpiece of the governing powers. Coss brings this idea to life by showing how the paper’s battles were a muddle of personal, political, and commercial interests. In the epilogue, he makes the connection to how a newspaper of this sort – even if it got a fair number of its facts wrong – could, by its very existence as an independent source of news, move the idea of sovereignty from kings to the common man.

These were highly religious times, and Coss represents the spiritual side of the era through Cotton Mather, the leading Puritan preacher of his day.  Coss conveys very ably what it must have felt like to live in Boston during a lethal epidemic -- something that it is hard for modern readers to imagine (our recent encounter with Ebola hardly compares).  Even the deep misery of the AIDS crisis, beginning in the 1980s, did not come close -- though for people who lived through that, Mather may act as a distant mirror.  

One thing the AIDS epidemic and Boston's smallpox epidemic had in common was that preachers in both cases told their flocks that divine retribution was at hand. In the 1721 epidemic, that message was delivered, above all, by Mather.  Many scholars hold Mather responsible in significant part for encouraging the hanging of Salem’s witches.  Yet unlike the homophobic preachers during the AIDS crisis, he was also part of the solution, leading the effort to introduce the science of inoculation to prevent spread of the disease.

Coss spends a good deal of time on Mather, one of America’s most prodigious, polarizing, and confounding characters.  He describes his role in the crisis, his relationship with the Royal Governor, his grief over lost children, his financial pressures, and even the way he treated his slave as a surrogate son. This wealth of information moves the story forward in valuable ways, but Cross does not, ultimately, succeed in bringing the great minister to life.

Between the compelling depiction of James Franklin and the weaker one of Mather is Cross’s quite interesting treatment of Zabdiel Boylston, the hero physician who actually administered much-needed inoculations in 1721. Against nearly overwhelming opposition from the government, the press (including Franklin’s Courant), and the medical establishment, Boylston pioneered the technique, documented his work, and saved lives. Anyone interested in medical history will be fascinated by Coss’s description of the state of science and the role of public opinion in taking action against an epidemic like this one -- and in Boylston's role of the doctor as public health hero.

In addition to weaving these interconnected human stories, The Fever of 1721 goes on to make a larger claim: that the events in Boston that year were causally related to the better-known developments of the 1770s.  The book does not entirely make the case that the outbreak and the response to it was a precursor to the Spirit of '76 and the American revolution.  In fact, the argument feels somewhat added on, in an attempt to give greater significance to the earlier activities. 

Still, it is quite possible to have a deep appreciation for the book, and the author's gift for telling a powerful story, without buying into this big-picture argument.  Even if he is not completely persuasive in connecting the smallpox fever of 1721 with the revolutionary fever that broke out five decades later, Coss has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of a little-understood chapter in American history.

Edwin Eisendrath’s eclectic reading habits include a good amount of U.S. history and literature. He prefers Melville to Faulkner and Washington to Jefferson. When he is not reading he is often helping U.S. clients build businesses in Saudi Arabia.