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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Book Review: Anti-Vaxxers "those who forget history are doomed to repeat"

Fever1721
The Fever of 1721, by Stephen Coss, should be a lesson for the 21st Century, if modern civilization is willing to learn from the past to protect our future generations from preventable infectious diseases.
People who have evolved to become "anti-vaxxers" or those who have fallen victims to the unfounded beliefs about how preventative vaccines somehow cause deliberate harm to mankind, are obviously ignoring the medical science to prove them wrong.

George Santayana- Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana (16 December 1863 in Madrid, Spain – 26 September 1952 in Rome, Italy) was a philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.

Stephen Cross examines a time in history when people were desperately seeking inoculations, rather than avoiding them, a retrospective history about past epidemics.  

From The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette reprinted in the June 2016 "The Rotarian" magazine.  Book reviews by Harry Kloman (PPG) and Frank Bures (Rotarian)

We live in a time when people doubt science and fear that inoculation will debilitate them rather than help them.

A time when working people struggle and the rich tell them to wait until wealth trickles down. A time when a crime committed by a person of color leads us to assume that everyone else who looks like that must be a criminal as well.

But in this particular time, “we” are the people of 18th-century Colonial America, and the focus of “The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics” by Stephen Coss, a book about a turning point in medical science and the yet-to-be-born First Amendment.

“The Fever of 1721” is informative and solidly told, although I can’t quite tell if Mr. Coss wants us to recognize the ways in which the nascent 21st century reflects 1721. It’s hard to imagine he doesn’t, and perhaps his choice to not bludgeon us with comparisons is a prudent one.

The book’s central story begins when a smallpox epidemic hits Boston, and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston — who, Mr. Coss tells us, performed history’s first recorded mastectomy — decides to experiment with a controversial prophylactic: Expose healthy people to a drop of the disease to let their bodies destroy it, thus making them immune if they’re exposed to a bigger dose as the virus infiltrates the population.

His experiment saved the lives of hundreds of people, but not without exposing him to accusations, led by the government and the press, that he was doing Satan’s work. When at last, late in 1721, more people began to embrace the technique, those who could afford it rushed to him and paid his fee. Those who couldn’t pay continued to die.

It didn’t help Boylston’s experiment that Cotton Mather had urged him to attempt it in the first place. Mather, the notorious and troubled Puritan evangelist who presided over the Salem witch hunts 30 years earlier, had since seen a new light in medical science, but many still believed he was an exploitative menace.

Nor did James Franklin, Ben’s older brother, help the daring doctor. James invented modern journalism by launching a bold newspaper that reported relentlessly on the smallpox epidemic, something his cowardly rivals largely refused to do. But he also seized on the fear and frenzy to further malign Boylston. His New-England Courant was witty, scandalous, snickering, aggressive and sensational in its anti-inoculation jeremiads (a favorite word of Mr. Coss’). So the birth of modern medicine left us with the afterbirth of tabloid journalism.

Mr. Coss admires what James Franklin did, and in the long run, so should we: His newspaper crossed a long-honored Rubicon with its merciless critique of government, something no paper had ever done with such impunity (that is, until it landed James in jail for a month). Still, the newspaper’s fanciful fabrications and clamorous crusades often weren’t the proudest moments in the history of the American media, something that Mr. Coss acknowledges grudgingly and only in passing.

And James’ paper did allow its frustrated and abused apprentice — his 16-year-old brother Ben, a self-taught polymath — to find his voice as a writer and his passionate disdain for religious hypocrisy (copious back then) and government tyranny.

Set half a century before American independence, Mr. Coss’ book lays out the themes and conflicts that would soon consume an emerging nation. That some of these issues still consume us offers no comfort about our future at a time when knowledge increases by magnitudes every day. In 1721, politicians and the people refused to see how science could help. If Coss’ tale teaches us one thing, it’s that the fever pitch of ignorance and denial is not so lovely a way to burn.

Harry Kloman is a freelance writer and journalism teacher at the University of Pittsburgh.

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