Professor can fix your engine, too

Versatile: A George Washington University historian is as knowledgeable in car repair as in a 1700s smallpox epidemic.

September 30, 2001|By Emily Eakin | Emily Eakin,N.Y. TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DURHAM, N.C. -- The George Washington University historian Elizabeth Anne Fenn has been leading an unusual double life. The proof is here at Clayton's Cross Creek BP and Service Center, where a hearty cheer goes up as she walks in, and a sweat- and grease-stained mechanic's shirt emblazoned with her nickname -- "Lil" -- dangles expectantly from the rafters.

"Whatcha got there, Daniel?" asks Fenn, sidling up to a young man wrestling with the exposed underbelly of a Dodge Neon. "Rear main seal job," he replies, flashing a toothy grin. Fenn nods approvingly. Daniel, she explains, was once her apprentice.

Tall, unflappable, with short auburn hair, abundant freckles and an appealing singsong drawl, Fenn, 41, is an auto mechanic as well as a scholar.

Thanks to her new full-time job teaching American history at George Washington, in Washington, she's lately been spending more time in the classroom than the shop. But she maintains a chin-high metal chest packed with $10,000 worth of auto tools at Clayton's in north Durham and still takes on the occasional free-lance job in the summer.

It was engine work -- in addition to the usual academic grants -- that helped finance the research for her first book, "Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82" (Hill & Wang), due out in October. While smallpox often makes a deadly walk-on appearance in histories of colonial life, Fenn gives the virus top billing, arguing that one particularly lethal outbreak in the 1770s nearly cost the colonies the War of Independence.

"Smallpox is not at all a part of the standard teaching of the American Revolution," she says over a glass of ice tea in the elegant, book-lined house she shares in nearby Hillsborough with her husband, Peter Wood, a professor of American history at Duke University, and a high-strung Hungarian pointer named Kody. "But once I started looking for it, I found it everywhere."

A highly contagious disease, smallpox left those who survived it immune to new infection but often hideously scarred or blind. Transmitted only by human beings, the virus was declared successfully eradicated in 1979. But for centuries, across much of Africa, Asia and Europe, the microbe was a dreaded feature of daily life.

This fact alone, Fenn writes in her book, gave the British a potentially decisive advantage over the Americans. Unlike the colonists and their American Indian allies, the troops arriving from England had for the most part already been exposed to smallpox. So when the virus broke out in the Northeast during the winter of 1775-76, just as the war took off, it became a military debacle for the Continental army.

Some patriots, fearing death by pestilence more than British gunfire, stayed home. Others showed up to serve only to fall ill and die. Still others volunteered in the army for a few months, contracted the disease and unwittingly took it home with them, spreading it up and down the East Coast.

In one particularly dismal episode in May 1776, the redcoats chased 1,900 sickly Continental troops up the St. Lawrence river toward Montreal, ultimately rescuing several hundred small-pox-infected men left to die during the panicky retreat.

Finally, in January 1777, George Washington decided to act: he ordered army-wide inoculations.

This crude procedure, a forerunner of the modern vaccination, involved implanting the live virus in a healthy person's skin. For reasons that are still not fully understood, Fenn writes, infections by inoculation tended to be less fatal than those caught the usual way. The technique, long practiced in China and Africa, had been introduced in the colonies by the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who learned about it from his African slave, Onesimus, and persuaded a Boston doctor to try it during a local smallpox outbreak in 1721.

Fifty-six years later, when Washington issued his order, inoculation was still not widely accepted. And it meant inflicting more illness on his foundering troops -- a risky military strategy. But Fenn credits his decision with putting an American victory within reach for the first time.

"Early in the war, smallpox clearly showed the potential to wipe out the Continental Army," she says. "Washington's decision to inoculate was absolutely central to winning the war."

Paradoxically, "Pox Americana" is just the kind of painstaking, archive-based research that Fenn got into auto work to avoid. Fifteen years ago, she was a graduate student at Yale, preparing to write a dissertation on millenarianism in American Indian culture. She wound up at the Durham Technical Community College, studying automotive repair instead.

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