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Carrell, Jennifer Lee. The speckled monster; a historical tale of battling smallpox.

CARRELL, Jennifer Lee. The speckled monster; a historical tale of battling smallpox. Penguin Plume. 474p. illus. notes. bibliog. index. c2003. 0-452-28507-0. $16.00. SA

Two persons, one in England and one in Boston, were, each in their own way, key movers in increasing the acceptability of inoculation against smallpox. Epidemics raged in their respective countries during 1721 and a few years following, and people coped as they usually did. They avoided each other, nursed the sick, called what doctors existed, tried to find someone or something to blame, and buried their dead. Lady Mary Whortley Montagu, a smallpox survivor, accompanied her husband to Constantinople, where he was Great Britain's ambassador to the Porte. There she met large numbers of women, none of whom bore the disfiguring scars. Why? They showed her scars on their arms where small amounts of the pus from pox victims had been placed by old women at parties. They were sick for a while, they said, then never got the real disease. Back in England, Lady Mary encouraged her surgeon to inoculate her son and others.

Smallpox survivor Zabdiel Boylston, a Boston apothecary, at the suggestion of the Reverend Cotton Mather (of fire and brimstone fame), visited slaves from Africa who had had the same experience as the Turkish women. Boylston inoculated his own son and his slave and then many others, including Mather's son. Moving back and forth from one country to the other, Carrell tells of the abuse Lady Mary and Boylston suffered when mobs physically attacked them as spreaders of the disease. The mobs had a point because it was possible to catch smallpox from freshly inoculated persons, and some died from the inoculation. Also, some medical persons of the day feared the diminution of their lucrative practices, and there were some religious leaders who believed that smallpox was the punishment of a just God for sins committed. Newspapers of the day published scurrilous attacks. Gradually, the idea of inoculation took hold, but immunization against smallpox did not become generally accepted until the milder vaccination using cowpox virus was identified by Edward Jenner in the 1860s.

This riveting read is hard to label. Carrell is clearly a scholarly researcher, but her main goal was to tell a good story that readers will enjoy, making it as accurate as possible in its main story but being less rigid in its minor details. She tells what it was like to live in a world in which smallpox and other epidemic diseases made periodic visits--which was most of the world for most of human history--and how very difficult it was to bring about smallpox's ultimate defeat. The author rambles at times, but the basic story is good. Carrell makes accessible a complex story that has resonance today. Edna Boardman, Bismarck, ND
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Author:Boardman, Edna
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2004
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