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The Fever of 1721

posted by: December 28, 2016 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Fever of 1721The past is truly prologue in The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics. Author Stephen Coss transports readers to a time when newspaper publishers incited petty feuds and questioned scientific progress in order to increase their profit margin. An outbreak of smallpox provided the perfect opportunity for the new publisher James Franklin and his indentured servant and brother Benjamin to mock inoculation efforts by publishing an ill-informed doctor’s fears of the practice. Inoculation proponent Doctor Zabdiel Boylston found an ally in Cotton Mather to assist in his mission to inoculate willing Bostonians. In an obvious attempt to ease his guilty conscience for his role in the Salem witch trials, Mather gambled that Doctor Boylston would save more lives through inoculation than Mather had condemned through spectral evidence.

 

Meanwhile, fear of a subversive slave revolt was spawned when enslaved Africans shared their history of inoculation. It was not long before Bostonians feared the new medical practice more than the disease, owing to the compounding factors of a former Salem minister, images of a slave revolt and egregious medical editorials. As a result, the fever of 1721 would be remembered as one of the worst smallpox outbreaks in the Americas.

 

As Coss tracked the outbreak of smallpox across Boston and into the neighboring towns, another fever spread through the Massachusetts Bay Colony. An argument between the Royal Governor and James Franklin landed the latter in the jail, inspiring his brother to take up his cause in the name of freedom of the press. The events of 1721 not only set the stage for revolution, but helped shape the political and scientific mind of a young indentured man who would become known as “The First American.”


 
 

Revised: December 28, 2016