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Response to Review of The End of a Global Pox

I am deeply grateful to Susan Heydon for her thoughtful, considerate, comprehensive, and helpful review of my book. Heydon provides not only a clear and concise summary of the book and (most of) my arguments, but also excellent suggestions for possible improvements to my book and on the scholarship of smallpox eradication more generally.

As Heydon notes, The End of a Global Pox examines the American role in to the global smallpox eradication, and I am glad that Heydon regards that as a ‘valuable contribution to the literature’ (p. 4). Heydon also notes that this ‘American lens’ is a weakness in that it leads me to neglect aspects of the ‘global programme, other countries or the work of non-Americans’. Heydon is of course correct that the book does not pay as much attention to those non-American parts of the story, and she is also correct that that the book does not bring more ‘insights and discussions’ from the historiography of smallpox eradication into the main text – ‘a pity’, Heydon says. (p. 2). In other words: there is much more to say and write and interpret and argue about smallpox eradication.

I agree completely! However, perhaps such absences are not so much a ‘pity’ and a ‘weakness’ as a deliberate decision to (a) stay within the confines of US academic publishing, which increasingly discourages long monographs and historiographical discussions and (b) allow me to focus on not just the US role in smallpox eradication during the Cold War, but some of the other elements of my argument. Specifically, the book applies the methods and analytical tools of environmental history to smallpox eradication, seeing the disease and its causative virus – as both a real thing and as an idea – as an active player in the story of smallpox eradication. This approach, I would argue, helps us better understand different aspects of smallpox’s eradication, from how the disease became conceptualized as eradicable to the lasting power of the disease in human imagination – a nonhuman ‘other’ with the power to terrorize. The book also tries to explore elements of US political history, especially the rise and fall of Great Society-style liberalism. Which is to say that the book is about the US role in smallpox eradication, yes, but it is also about environmental history and about US political history. I am disappointed that the book seems not to have sufficiently impressed these parts of my story and argument on the reader. Still, I stand by the value of that narrative and analysis, which necessarily came at the expense of other areas of interest suggested by Heydon.

Fortunately, as Heydon notes in her review (and as I note in the book), there are many histories of smallpox eradication already written or in progress that will add even more nuance and complexity to the story. I am glad that Heydon draws attention to India and Nepal and the work of Bhattacharya, Manela, and Henderson: these are fascinating and important stories and interpretations and analyses, as is Heydon’s own work in the history of smallpox vaccination in Nepal. The eradication of smallpox is a massively important and complex story, and despite the WHO’s attempts to create the authoritative account in its 1,400-page Smallpox and its Eradication, making sense of eradication requires the work of many different scholars approaching the topic from many different angles.

Given the opportunity to rewrite and expand the book, I would certainly more directly respond to and incorporate Heydon’s critiques and suggestions. As it is, I am grateful for the opportunity to continue the conversation in this forum, and I join her in encouraging other scholars of smallpox eradication to explore and explain the many nuances of this remarkable and, to-date, unique effort to eliminate a human disease.