Miller Center

Colloquium - The Mild Case: The Politics of Smallpox in the American South

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Michael Willrich
April 6, 2007
12:30PM - 12:30PM (EDT)

Michael Willrich
Michael Willrich

Michael Willrich, Associate Professor of History, Brandeis University

This working paper is a chapter from a larger book project on smallpox and the politics of public health in the United States during the Progressive Era (1890–1920). In the closing years of the 19th century, a great wave of smallpox epidemics struck communities across the southern United States. The epidemics featured a new "mild type" of smallpox, which caused surprisingly few deaths but wreaked widespread social and political havoc. The new smallpox generated confusion among public officials, physicians, and laypeople, who debated the very nature of the disease, and it spurred enormous popular resistance to the efforts of local and state authorities to enforce universal vaccination. Tracing the journeys made across this contested terrain by one itinerant public health official, C.P. Wertenbaker of the U.S. Marine Hospital Service, the paper shows how smallpox opened a new channel for federal authority in the post-Reconstruction American South.

Willrich teaches history and directs the American history graduate program at Brandeis University, where he specializes in American social and legal history, urban history, and the Progressive Era (1890–1920). A former urban affairs journalist, he is the author of City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago (Cambridge University Press, 2003). City of Courts won the American Historical Association's John H. Dunning Prize in 2003. Willrich's current research centers on the many ways that ordinary Americans used the law, legal ideas, institutions, and litigation to challenge the growth of the modern interventionist state during the early twentieth century. Willrich received his B.A. from Yale and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has received fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the American Bar Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Newberry Library.

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