My favorite books to understand health and politics in the early United States

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a historian of early American history who discovered the history of medicine somewhat by accident. As a history graduate student, I wanted to understand how ordinary Americans experienced the American Revolution. While digging through firsthand accounts written by average Americans, I came across a diary written by a sailor named Ashley Bowen. Although Bowen wrote made entries daily beginning in the 1760s, he hardly mentioned any of the political events that typically mark the coming of the American Revolution. Instead, day after day, he wrote about outbreaks of smallpox and how he volunteered to help his community. From then on, I began to understand just how central and inseparable health and politics are. 


I wrote...

The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution

By Andrew M. Wehrman,

Book cover of The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution

What is my book about?

My book The Contagion of Liberty: The Politics of Smallpox in the American Revolution is a timely and fascinating account of the raucous public demand for smallpox inoculation during the American Revolution and the origin of vaccination in the United States. It describes a revolution within a revolution in which Americans’ sometimes violent insistence on public solutions to smallpox epidemics ultimately helped them achieve independence from Great Britain and firmly establish that protecting public health was a duty of the government.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Province of Affliction: Illness and the Making of Early New England

Andrew M. Wehrman Why did I love this book?

While hundreds of books have been written on early New England, Ben Mutschler deftly paints a portrait of life in New England “with sickness at its center.” He thoroughly integrates family struggles over illness and the demands placed on local governments into the story of the social and political development of this region that has long valued public health even as it has also endured tragic circumstances.

By Ben Mutschler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Province of Affliction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How do we balance individual and collective responsibility for illness? This question, which continues to resonate today, was especially pressing in colonial America, where episodic bouts of sickness were pervasive, chronic ails common, and epidemics all too familiar.

In The Province of Affliction, Ben Mutschler explores the surprising roles that illness played in shaping the foundations of New England society and government from the late seventeenth century through the early nineteenth century. Considered healthier than residents in many other regions of early America, and yet still riddled with disease, New Englanders grappled steadily with what could be expected of the…


Book cover of The Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia

Andrew M. Wehrman Why did I love this book?

Simon Finger’s book, The Contagious City, is a wonderful, concise introduction to the politics of public health in early America. By focusing on Philadelphia, a city literally designed by William Penn to be healthier than European cities, Finger shows how a distinctly American view of public health developed even after that original plan failed to achieve its desired results. Finger describes the growth of the medical community in Philadelphia, its trials during the Revolution, and its failures during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic.

By Simon Finger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Contagious City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By the time William Penn was planning the colony that would come to be called Pennsylvania, with Philadelphia at its heart, Europeans on both sides of the ocean had long experience with the hazards of city life, disease the most terrifying among them. Drawing from those experiences, colonists hoped to create new urban forms that combined the commercial advantages of a seaport with the health benefits of the country. The Contagious City details how early Americans struggled to preserve their collective health against both the strange new perils of the colonial environment and the familiar dangers of the traditional city,…


Book cover of Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom

Andrew M. Wehrman Why did I love this book?

I was on a conference panel with Kathryn a few years ago and got to hear her present part of what would become her book Necropolis, and I was already hooked. Nineteenth-century New Orleans was marked by both yellow fever and its opposition to public health measures that might have made the city safer. Instead, white Americans who survived the terrible disease (and Olivarius describes it in all of its nastiness), developed “immunocapital” giving them further opportunities to enrich themselves in the bustling port city. For those who were Black and enslaved, yellow fever meant either death or further subjection into grueling labor and bondage, dividing the population and cementing inequality. 

By Kathryn Olivarius,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Necropolis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Disease is thought to be a great leveler of humanity, but in antebellum New Orleans acquiring immunity from the scourge of yellow fever magnified the brutal inequities of slave-powered capitalism.

Antebellum New Orleans sat at the heart of America's slave and cotton kingdoms. It was also where yellow fever epidemics killed as many as 150,000 people during the nineteenth century. With little understanding of mosquito-borne viruses-and meager public health infrastructure-a person's only protection against the scourge was to "get acclimated" by surviving the disease. About half of those who contracted yellow fever died.

Repeated epidemics bolstered New Orleans's strict racial…


Book cover of The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866

Andrew M. Wehrman Why did I love this book?

Charles E. Rosenberg published his book, The Cholera Years, in 1962, and it has remained the classic book on the history of medicine in the 19th century United States. Rosenberg has had a singular impact on the field and has written on many public health topics, but his first book remains my favorite. Cleverly integrating the histories of social change, religion, and the contentious politics of New York City into a richly detailed chronicle of three separate epidemics of cholera, Rosenberg provides a gripping account of how Americans’ responses to public health crises have changed over time.

By Charles E. Rosenberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Cholera Years as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cholera was the classic epidemic disease of the nineteenth century, as the plague had been for the fourteenth. Its defeat was a reflection not only of progress in medical knowledge but of enduring changes in American social thought. Rosenberg has focused his study on New York City, the most highly developed center of this new society. Carefully documented, full of descriptive detail, yet written with an urgent sense of the drama of the epidemic years, this narrative is as absorbing for general audiences as it is for the medical historian. In a new Afterword, Rosenberg discusses changes in historical method…


Book cover of Doctoring Freedom: The Politics of African American Medical Care in Slavery and Emancipation

Andrew M. Wehrman Why did I love this book?

Gretchen Long’s book Doctoring Freedom includes remarkable stories not only of how Black people were abused and left out of American health care, such as it was in the 19th century, but centers the book on Black Americans’ efforts to support their health and their citizenship while being denied both. Long’s finely detailed case studies of Black doctors, such as John Donalson Austin who had been an enslaved herbal healer who was denied the right to practice when free, is one of many stories Long uncovers as she details the ways Black healers and doctors used clinics, hospitals, and dispensaries as sites of resistance to both medical and political authorities.

By Gretchen Long,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Doctoring Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For enslaved and newly freed African Americans, attaining freedom and citizenship without health for themselves and their families would have been an empty victory. Even before emancipation, African Americans recognized that control of their bodies was a critical battleground in their struggle for autonomy, and they devised strategies to retain at least some of that control. In Doctoring Freedom, Gretchen Long tells the stories of African Americans who fought for access to both medical care and medical education, showing the important relationship between medical practice and political identity.
Working closely with antebellum medical journals, planters' diaries, agricultural publications, letters from…


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Acquaintance

By Jeff Stookey,

Book cover of Acquaintance

Jeff Stookey Author Of Dangerous Medicine

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Historical fiction writer Gay male Reader History buff Curious human

Jeff's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

As a young doctor, Carl Holman has experienced the horrors of World War I and the death of his lover, a fellow officer. Back home after the War, he befriends a young jazz musician who he hopes will become a companion he can share his life with. But this is Oregon: the Ku Klux Klan is gaining influence, homosexual acts are illegal, and such a relationship will jeopardize Carl’s promising medical career.

Musician Jimmy Harper has his own dreams for the future and his own obstacles to overcome before he will allow himself to accept Carl’s love. More than a gay love story, Acquaintance is a deep dive into gay and lesbian history based on extensive period research of the 1920s.

Acquaintance

By Jeff Stookey,

What is this book about?

As a young surgeon, Carl Holman has experienced the horrors of World War I and the loss of his lover, a fellow officer. Back home after the war, he befriends a young jazz musician who he hopes will become a companion he can share his life with. But this is Oregon: the Ku Klux Klan is gaining influence, homosexual acts are illegal, and such a relationship will jeopardize Carl’s promising medical career. Musician Jimmy Harper has his own dreams for the future and his own obstacles to overcome before he will allow himself to accept Carl’s love.
Acquaintance is a…


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