A Plague Among Us
By Bruce McKinney
SARS reminds us that life can be uncertain. These days we receive vaccinations for what were not many decades ago dreaded and often fatal diseases. We advance but we do not wholly escape. We have the complications of an enormous population and the immediacy of air flights to carry unsuspecting contagion far and wide. In some sense we continue to share a common experience with our ancestors because we are, after all, human. Science improves. Science mitigates but science does not absolutely defeat all the forms of illness that periodically rise up to threaten us.
The recent outbreak of SARS has made us all more aware of our mortality. It’s frightening but also breathtaking. Within a matter of weeks of confirmed discovery, scientists in various parts of the world were working to unravel its genetic code. Quickly the disease is becoming understood, strategies and treatments perfected and fear and panic controlled. Pox Americana, The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A. Fenn, a book I recently read about the Smallpox epidemics that occurred during the American Revolution, reminds us that control of contagious disease is a very recent phenomenon. Not so long ago, disease randomly killed and maimed significant percentages of the population.
Most American histories do not dwell on disease. When they mention it, it’s often to highlight the bravery and stamina of history’s central characters rather than to illuminate the darkness. In fact it increasingly seems that the most honest histories are the accounts written at the time rather than the revisionist, interpretative histories that today often must meet social requirements. We may not like the way things were but it serves no useful purpose to pretend that the past was different than it was. Would we be damaged if George Washington’s nose on the one dollar bill showed the Smallpox scars that are documented? Would we think less of George Washington or his Continental Army if Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze had shown the Smallpox scars that were certainly present among those crossing the Delaware?
Pox Americana recounts the history of a Smallpox outbreak in North America during the years 1775 to 1782 and suggests how this serious illness impacted the American Revolution and changed the demographics of the entire continent. It is not the story you'll find in most American history books. It is fascinating for that reason alone. It suggests that there is a great deal of American history that has been dropped or sanitized because it doesn’t meet “today’s standards” or is not consistent with the view we now have of ourselves. It is for similar reasons why many people born in Germany since World War Two believe that Germany did not persecute Jews. It is very dangerous to deny the past. As Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.”