What does smallpox have to do with American history? According to David Rosner, Ph.D., Co-Director, Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University, advisor to the exhibition BE SURE! BE SAFE! GET VACCINATED! Smallpox, Vaccination and Civil Liberties in New York, everything. In this three-part series, written by Rosner, we’ll take a look at the impact smallpox has had on our social fabric.
Some might be surprised to see the New-York Historical Society mount an exhibition about the history of smallpox rather than a medical institution or a medical history museum. By organizing it here, in an institution that focuses on the cultural, political, economic and social history of New York, the history of smallpox immediately becomes something more than a subject of interest to medical and public health professionals alone. It can be seen that the history of disease is part of the social history of the city. What experience, after all, can be more important than life death, diseases and suffering for New Yorkers.
Certainly smallpox, as one of the oldest and most important in American history exemplifies that disease is, in the words of Charles Rosenberg, both a biological as well as social event. Could we tell of the early encounters between Europeans and Native Americans without talking about the dreadful impact of this disease? Could we relate the history of colonial knowledge of inoculation without noting that Cotton Mather learned from the customs of Africans who brought to the colonies practices that protected them from the disease? Could we speak of the American Revolution without noting that smallpox killed more of Washington’s troops than did the Red Coats and that he demanded that his troops be inoculated? Could we talk about the great moments in the history of technology without talking about vaccination, a critical means of “conquering” disease?
Could we look at the Cold War and not note that smallpox, a worldwide scourge as recently as a century ago, was the first, and to this date only, disease to be eradicated through an international effort, conducted and accomplished through the cooperation of nation’s deeply divided on virtually every other political issue? Could we look at any of these events and not note that the way we addressed smallpox, and disease more generally, is a reflection of our political, economic, social and cultural beliefs and that the diseases that strike us are as much a reflection of ourselves as they are a biological event?
In the next installment, did we create the conditions that let epidemics spread?