Official Website of Award-Winning Author

The Fever of 1721

The Epidemic That Revolutionized
Medicine and American Politics
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About Stephen

Stephen Coss grew up in East Haven and North Haven, Connecticut and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

He won the New England Society Award for his 2016 book, The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics. The book was favorably reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Library Journal gave it a starred review and called it a “gem of colonial history,” and “Masterly.” Booklist said: “Intelligent and sweeping…The people portrayed in this public health story, their struggles and interactions, feel at once intimate and urgent, thanks to Coss’s lucid telling of this fascinating story.” The book has been praised by prominent historians including Jon Meacham, Richard Brookhiser, and David O Stewart.

 

Steve has also written for Smithsonian magazine and worked as a marketing communications copywriter and creative director in Chicago, Detroit, and Madison, Wisconsin, where he currently resides with his wife, Judy.

About the fever of 1721

THIS IS THE STORY of a fateful year that changed the course of medical history, American journalism, and colonial revolution. In exploring the drama behind the first inoculation experiment in Western medicine (the earliest form of vaccination), readers will find astonishing parallels to our own battle against COVID-19 and to the political and social issues that have accompanied it.   

 

During the worst smallpox epidemic in Boston history, the controversial Puritan minister Cotton Mather convinced an underestimated physician named Zabdiel Boylston to try a radical medical procedure Mather learned about from his enslaved African servant, Onesimus. Public outrage forced Boylston into hiding, and Mather’s house was firebombed.

 

Other fevers also raged. More than 50 years before the American Revolution, Massachusetts political leader Elisha Cooke, the man who would become the political mentor, model, and lodestar to Samuel Adams and the Patriots, was challenging the Crown for control of the colony. Meanwhile, a bold young printer, James Franklin, launched America’s first independent newspaper, the daring and scandalous New England Courant. During this period, his teenaged brother and apprentice Benjamin Franklin developed the skills and convictions that would distinguish him as a printer, writer, diplomat, scientist, and revolutionary.

 

The Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721 was the catalyst for the invention of American journalism, the coming-of-age of Benjamin Franklin, and the beginning of American independence. It was also a turning point in the eradication of history’s deadliest disease. The Fever of 1721 brings these remarkable stories together for the first time.

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Meet the characters

Cotton Mather

Boston’s most famous and controversial minister. Thirty years after the Salem witch trials, he’s still struggling to redeem himself. His inability to resist meddling in politics and the affairs of other congregations undermines that effort. When smallpox returns to Boston in 1721 he resolves to save the town—and his reputation—by introducing an exotic medical procedure he has learned from an enslaved African servant named Onesimus.

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Zabdiel Boylston

Boston physician. His lack of formal education and his willingness to perform dangerous (some say “reckless”) surgeries have relegated him to the status of a second-rate practitioner. But his openness to ideas outside of mainstream European medicine makes him uniquely responsive to Cotton Mather’s appeal for an inoculation trial. In 1721 he defies his fellow physicians and the town fathers to conduct one of the most consequential experiments in medical history.

James Franklin

Printer, newspaper publisher, troublemaker. The son of a humble tallow chandler, he returns to Boston from his printer’s apprenticeship in England determined to make his mark and shake up his staid and proper town. In 1721 he exploits the controversy over inoculation to launch America’s first independent newspaper. He satirizes the clergy and the government, and challenges Boston’s values and mores, defying the government to stop him and flirting with censorship and imprisonment.

Benjamin Franklin

Printer’s apprentice, boy prodigy. At age 12 Benjamin Franklin is indentured to his brother James. For the next five years he conducts his storied self-education, reading everything in the printing house library, studying the essays in the newspaper he helps James print, and eavesdropping on James and his “ingenious” friends as they discuss books, pamphlets and the issues of the day. The 1721 inoculation controversy shapes his views about science, medicine, religion, diplomacy, and freedom of expression, and spurs him to secretly author his first essays under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood.”

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Elisha Cooke Jr.

Charismatic Massachusetts politician. A staunch and passionate opponent of British control over his colony, the hard-drinking Cooke builds a political movement to resist the London-appointed governor Samuel Shute and the royal prerogative. By 1721 his Boston Caucus and Popular Party have taken control of the House of Representatives, which obstructs Shute at every turn, turning the governor desperate and ruthless. In the decades to come, Samuel Adams and the Patriots will utilize Cooke’s strategy and infrastructure to launch the American Revolution.

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Samuel Shute

Royal governor of Massachusetts. Four years into his administration he is losing control of his colony to Elisha Cooke and the rebellious Massachusetts House of Representatives. By the time of the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the prickly, unpopular Shute is so desperate to stave off his recall by the Crown that he exploits the threat of infection in an attempt to coerce the House into compliance.

 

Articles

“Franklin’s Secret Heartache” by Stephen Coss
Smithsonian magazine, September 2017

 

What Led Benjamin Franklin to Live Estranged From His Wife for Nearly Two Decades? Historians have long debated why beloved Founder Benjamin Franklin treated his wife so shabbily. Our writer has a stunning new theory.

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REVIEWS & PRAISE

In 1721, Boston was a dangerous place. The Massachusetts colonial government barely maintained order, though it needed to. Abenaki Indians were threatening colonists on land while pirates were marauding at sea.  Alternative sources of authority were scarce. Fallout from the Salem with trials of 1692 had discredited the colony’s Congregationalist ministers. Perhaps most dangerously, smallpox had spread from an infected ship to people ashore. The resulting epidemic is the “fever” Stephen Coss places at the center of his first book, “The Fever of 1721,” though his title bundles up all the city’s hot troubles in one big crisis.

NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

March 6, 2016

 
 
media & APPEARANCES
Video

Stephen Coss talks about The Fever of 1721 for Simon & Schuster’s “History in Five” (3:04)

Book launch for The Fever of 1721 in Madison, Wisconsin (2:15)

Other
Jon Meacham, New York Times Editorial, “Pandemics of the Past” (May 2020)

Historian Meacham explains what we can learn about the COVID-19 pandemic from two works of history, A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman, and The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss.

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media & APPEARANCES
Video

Stephen Coss talks about The Fever of 1721 for Simon & Schuster’s “History in Five” (3:04)

Book launch for The Fever of 1721 in Madison, Wisconsin (2:15)

Audio
Print
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Jon Meacham, New York Times Editorial,
Pandemics of the Past,” May 2020

Historian Meacham explains what we can learn about the COVID-19 pandemic from two works of history, A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman, and The Fever of 1721 by Stephen Coss.

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When Ben Franklin Was Against Vaccines
Wall Street Journal, March 2016

When Cotton Mather advocated inoculation during a smallpox outbreak, young Benjamin Franklin helped foment outrage against him.

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'The Fever of 1721' by Stephen Coss
New York Times Book Review, March 2016
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'The Fever of 1721': How an epidemic changed American medicine and politics
Pittsburgh Post Gazette. March 2016
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A heated year in Boston in the ‘Fever of 1721’
The Boston Globe. April 2016
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Contact Stephen Coss

Stephen welcomes reader feedback and is available for media interviews and for author talks to organizations or groups. All inquiries receive a prompt response. 

Thank you.

Illustration Credits:  Portrait of Cotton Mather: Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society / Portrait of Benjamin Franklin: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Dr. John Collins Warren, 1856, H47 / Portrait of Elisha Cooke: Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society