Support the news

Smallpox Wars: Massachusetts Was Hot-Bed of Anti-Vaccination Backlash11:01

This article is more than 8 years old.

One night in November 1901, the Boston health department sent a "virus squad" to the "five and ten cent" lodging houses in the South End. Physicians carrying lancets were accompanied by club-wielding police. The squad busted down doors. Policemen held down struggling men on their cots while doctors performed the operation.

According to a Boston Globe reporter, the "tramps" fought back. They "kicked and clawed and also fought with teeth and heads against what some of them declared was an assault upon their rights as otherwise free and independent American citizens." The homeless men uttered "every imaginable threat from civil suits to cold-blooded murder."

That's an excerpt from Michael Willrich's new book, "POX: An American History." It is the story of America's 20th-century war on smallpox and the ferocious fight over civil liberties that war sparked. Michael Willrich describes how Massachusetts was a major battleground in the struggle between individual rights and the greater good in protecting the public health.



This segment aired on June 1, 2011.

+Join the discussion

Support the news