Outbreak of a Dormant Theory

March 31, 2003
Career shifting: Fenn plies two trades

Career shifting: Fenn plies two trades. Jimmy Wallace.

Elizabeth "Lil" Fenn is probably the only historian now working in academe who lived in a tepee her senior year in college and worked for eight years as an auto mechanic. But Fenn '81 has distinguished herself from her peers in a more significant way than leading an unusual private life. With the recent publication of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, she lays out a painstakingly researched argument that shows how smallpox shaped the fate of the North American continent in ways previously unimagined.

The book's title makes it sound like a relatively modest treatise of interest primarily to history buffs or fellow scholars. But, in fact, Pox Americana is, well, revolutionary. Fenn shows how the spread of smallpox was inextricably linked to the social, economic, and political currents of the time, from the mission churches in Mexico to the Canada fur trade to George Washington and his Continental Army. She shows how the disease altered the balance of power in North America by decimating certain Native American tribes; how the spread of smallpox was fueled by conditions of war such as increased mobility; and how the disease may even have influenced the outcome of the American Revolution.

Fenn's scholarship is groundbreaking, according to John Mack Faragher, a professor of history at Yale University and her graduate adviser. "The central idea of this project is to demonstrate that groups in North America were linked together in fundamental and earth-shattering ways that were not of their choosing," he says. "And Lil did not have an easy time of it. There was a fair amount of intellectual resistance to what she was doing, because it threatened people in cubbyholes--historians who thought that you should only focus on specific categories like geography or the fur trade or the Revolutionary War. But I knew that she could pull it off, and that this was going to be a really big book."" I really had no idea about the dimensions of this until I started researching my prospectus," says Fenn, who joined the Duke faculty last year as an assistant professor of history. "People are used to thinking about the thirteen colonies or Canada or New Spain as being separate from one another. No one had ever pieced it together before. As I conducted my research, I had one of those light-bulb moments when I realized that this was not just a small outbreak in Western Canada. It was immense."

Indeed, Pox Americana, which came out in 2001, is in its third printing and has earned two awards for historical writing. As notable as the book has become, however, its evolution was slow and the path toward it, circuitous. Academe was never at the top of Fenn's career choices growing up, even though her mother, Ann Fenn '53, taught junior-high-school social studies and her paternal grandfather taught Chinese at Yale. (Her father worked in personnel management and helped launch off-track betting in New York.) Fenn applied to Duke because it was a compromise between her parents' preference for conservative Vassar College and hers for the less-restrictive University of New Hampshire. Because her knees were shot from playing basketball in high school, she took up crew, waking before dawn for workouts and practice.

The first vaccination: Edward Jenner used pus from the hand of a dairy maid in 1796

The first vaccination: Edward Jenner used pus from the hand of a dairy maid in 1796. © Bettmann/Corbis.

She also reveled in her coursework. In the history department, she immersed herself in Larry Goodwyn's course "The Insurgent South" and Peter Wood's "Colonial America." In anthropology, she sought out socio-cultural anthropology courses with Virginia Dominguez, now at the University of Iowa, and courses examining themes of democracy and economic culture with Rob Weller, now at Boston University. One Weller class in particular, "Peasants and Peasant Rebellions," still resonates. "All of the students enrolled were hungry for engagement, for classes with deep, global, historical resonance that illuminated the world as we saw it," Fenn says. "What impresses me as I think back on it was how intensely we thought about things. Weller's class addressed questions that mattered. They mattered then, and they matter today: Why and when do people rebel? How do movements form? Why do they succeed? Why do they fail? From the American Revolution to the civil-rights movement to the international peace movement today, I still think these are really pressing questions."

With only five people in the class, the group bonded outside the classroom as well. "We called ourselves the Peasant Rebels," she recalls, laughing at the memory. "We actually crashed a conference on peasant rebellions at the National Humanities Center that specifically excluded undergraduates. 'No!' we insisted when they tried to throw us out. 'We're the Peasant Rebels!' "

Fenn first became aware of smallpox's indelible impact on history when she read about an outbreak of the disease among the Native Americans in the Hudson Bay fur trade; at the time she was conducting research for her senior thesis. Her thesis won the William T. Laprade Prize in History for best honors essay, and she graduated cum laude with distinction in history. During her senior year, Fenn actually pitched her tent in a tepee she'd bought the year before while on spring break in Florida. She lived off Old Erwin Road in a place called Fancytown, a loose cooperative of hippies and sharecroppers.

" Everybody thinks that I must have wanted to be an Indian or something, but that wasn't the case," she says. "I'm not the type to hang a dream catcher on my rear-view mirror. I had friends in Wyoming who lived in teepees, and I simply thought they were really neat, cheap, functional dwellings. With a wood-burning stove and a floor made of plywood, my teepee was pretty far from the authentic Plains Indian home."

In its own weird way, her tepee contributed to the success of her thesis. "I rode my bike up 751 in the morning, took a shower in Card Gym, stayed on campus all day, and rode home at night," she says. "And when it got too cold and I got too lazy to chop wood for heat, I stayed even longer, because the library was warm."

After graduation, Fenn went to Yale for graduate school, earning her master's in history in 1985. She perfunctorily pursued some coursework toward her Ph.D. but became increasingly disengaged from the academic milieu. Even before grad school, she had toyed with the idea of joining the proletariat by becoming a machinist--a holdover, in part, from her Peasant Rebel days. One day, while working on her run-down Datsun 510, she says she realized how much she looked forward to having it break down. That meant she would have to consult the comprehensive service manual--not the cursory owner's manual--to learn how to fix it. Once, while changing the oil, she accidentally poured the Styrofoam tab from the oil container into her engine. Certain that she'd destroyed her car, she called the guys down at the local parts shop and told them what had happened. No problem, they replied, just take off the valve cover.

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© Bettmann /Corbis.

That moment, she says, was an epiphany. "I saw the innards, the guts of the engine for the first time. It was this miraculous moment.

I had changed my oil religiously, so there was no carbon buildup or anything. It was beautiful. I started taking classes at Durham Tech and stopped doing my dissertation."

A few classes turned into an eight-year career as an auto mechanic at Cross Creek BP and Auto Center in Durham, a decision that remains inscrutable to Fenn all these years later. "I have a very hard time identifying what led me to fix cars. Part of it was the sheer differentness. Part of it was the challenge. Part of it was the anticipated satisfaction of finishing a hard day's work. But more than anything, it felt liberating. It freed me from all the expectations--both real and imagined--I carried around with me. That was a wonderful thing.

" Not only did it liberate me from the expectations tied to class, status, and gender, but it liberated me in a special emotional and psychological way. It made me much more forgiving and less judgmental. I have to credit the guys I worked with for this. They taught me lots about ignition timing and engine controls. But they also taught me that it's okay to love people with whom I disagree deeply. I did not go into automotive repair consciously seeking this, but it is certainly the greatest thing I've carried away from those years."

The work, says Fenn, was brutal and demanding--but also a lot of fun. "I'd have blisters and smashed hands. People come in on a 98-degree day after having spent six hours on the Interstate, their manifold is so hot it's glowing red, and they want their oil changed now. In time, your back goes out, your knees go out. Almost all the guys I worked with, except the young ones, would get out if they could. There are no health benefits to speak of. You get one vacation a year. And you work every day from 8 a.m. until after dark.

" On the other hand, unlike academic life, it's a raucous atmosphere to work in. You can play jokes on people, call someone a jerk when they're a jerk, and forgive them quickly. Grudges aren't held very long. I got so used to popping people with my rag that when I started teaching again I had to adjust. In the shop, it's a gesture of affection, but you just can't do that to someone you work with at a university."

Another advantage to her blue-collar job was that, at the end of the day, she could hang up her rag, go home, drink a beer, and read anything she wanted to read. She also wrote creative fiction and nonfiction during this period and began thinking about tools that fiction writers use to make their work compelling to a general audience and how she might apply them to scholarly work. In 1994, her friend Marjoleine Kars '82, Ph.D. '94 loaned Fenn a novel called The Horseman on the Roof by French writer Jean Giono. Set in nineteenth-century Provence, the book follows a young Italian nobleman and soldier making his way home from France when cholera begins breaking out all around him. "Giono managed to write really beautifully about something really terrible, and that fascinated me," Fenn says. "It said something very powerful about the human condition."

To her surprise, she found herself thinking back to her senior honors thesis. "Even as I labored over brake jobs and engine repairs," she writes in the foreword to Pox Americana, "I found myself carried back to the Native Americans whose suffering was described in those Hudson Bay smallpox documents I had read more than a decade before. Eventually I could not stand it anymore. I wanted to write a story of my own, a story about smallpox."

Fenn says that the timing of her encounter with the book was fortuitous. "I read The Horseman on the Roof when my learning curve in the shop had flattened. I was growing bored, doing jobs by rote, with my hands on autopilot." She contacted Yale, where she had completed all her requirements except a dissertation and one language, to confirm her all-but-dissertation status. Still working at the BP station, Fenn honed her dissertation proposal for about a year, before turning to it full time. Her research was exhaustive and encompassed primary and secondary sources, including books, diaries, letters, journals, and even death records kept by the genealogically-minded church.

Bit by bit her story came together. She told how George Washington had to decide whether to inoculate his troops after smallpox broke out among the men wintering at Valley Forge. Washington knew that inoculation--intentionally exposing people to the live virus so that they develop immunity--was risky; some would die. But he also knew that, without it, his men would surely die in great numbers. Smallpox was widespread in Europe at the time. A vast majority of British troops had been exposed to the virus while growing up and were, therefore, immune. However, there had been only scattered instances of smallpox outbreaks in the American colonies, and the Continental troops were especially vulnerable to infection. An unchecked outbreak would certainly decimate the army. Washington decided to go forward with what would be the first large-scale, state-sponsored inoculation and quarantine plan. Its success most likely determined the course of the war. The virus was kept at bay, enabling Washington's healthy troops to achieve pivotal victories the following spring and summer.

Beyond examining smallpox's influence on the course of war, Fenn's research traced the expanding fur trade and proved why, through interactions with traders--Native American and European--it provided a perfect conduit for spreading smallpox. And her investigation revealed a dark glimpse into the scare tactics of white settlers, who used the specter of smallpox to subjugate susceptible Native Americans for years. Her thesis became the launching point for Pox Americana.

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Preventive medicine: vaccinating a member 
of the 101st Airborne, left, to fight in Iraq. © /Corbis.

In a review of the book for the American Scientist, Smith College biology professor Robert Dorit noted that each of the book's historical episodes is singularly fascinating, but that the cumulative effect is profound. "Precisely because the author is a historian," he wrote, "she has captured the fundamental reality of all human epidemics: It's not just the biology, stupid. Instead, it is the interactions between biology and socioeconomic variables (class, privilege, nutrition, crowding, access to medical care) and between biology and historical events (wars, migrations) that determine the real dynamics of infectious disease."

As it happened, Pox Americana was published only a month after the Twin Towers fell, and Fenn quickly became a much-sought-after--and quoted--smallpox expert. Although her book focuses on the eighteenth-century epidemic, she has been called on to comment about modern-day threats of bioterrorism and the efficacy and risks of smallpox vaccinations in interviews on CNN Live Today, C-SPAN, Nightline, and National Public Radio. She has also been cited or quoted in articles that have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News & World Report, among others.

" There has been a kind of perverse serendipity to the success of this book," says Fenn, from her third-floor office in Carr Building on East Campus. "The news media has fueled this frenzy about the threat of smallpox, and I'm not sure the attention is warranted. I get calls from reporters asking about smallpox, and I say, 'Yes, it's a terrible disease,' and describe the symptoms and so forth. And that's what gets quoted--not my concurrent point, which is that I'm much more concerned about how we spend our public-health resources in this country than I am about an imminent outbreak of smallpox."

Pox Americana was published while Fenn was teaching at George Washington University. At Duke she teaches an undergraduate course on the American Revolution, as well as an interdisciplinary examination of the history of disasters in North America, from the arrival of the Europeans to the collapse of the World Trade Center. In February, she was the inaugural speaker for a lecture series, "The Weight of War," co-sponsored by the history department and the Duke Alumni Association.

Even though Pox Americana has made its mark on the historical landscape, Fenn says she remains intrigued by all the unanswered questions and dead ends she encountered along the way. "The piece of information I most wanted to find was some hard evidence indicating that Comanches definitely carried smallpox to the Shoshones. And I would also love to know more about what was going on out in the Plains. The whole center part of the Plains remains a mystery to historians because there were no European eyewitnesses on the scene at the time--at least none who kept records and wrote about it."

" My hope remains that archaeologists can piece together what documents don't reveal," she says. "They can figure out when villages were abandoned and determine contractions of populations. There's really exciting work going on in archaeology right now, and historians are going to have to pay attention to it. It's going to be a different story."

It's a story she's eager to write.

Booher '82, A.M. '92, a former features editor of Duke Magazine, is assistant director of the Hart Leadership program at the Sanford Institute.