Plagues in the Nation: How Epidemics Shaped America (Hardcover)

Plagues in the Nation: How Epidemics Shaped America By Polly J. Price Cover Image
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An expert legal review of the US government’s response to epidemics through history—with larger conclusions about COVID-19, and reforms needed for the next plague

In this narrative history of the US through major outbreaks of contagious disease, from yellow fever to the Spanish flu, from HIV/AIDS to Ebola, Polly J. Price examines how law and government affected the outcome of epidemics—and how those outbreaks in turn shaped our government.

Price presents a fascinating history that has never been fully explored and draws larger conclusions about the gaps in our governmental and legal response. Plagues in the Nation examines how our country learned—and failed to learn—how to address the panic, conflict, and chaos that are the companions of contagion, what policies failed America again and again, and what we must do better next time.

About the Author

Polly J. Price is an award-winning legal historian and Professor of Law and Global Health at Emory University. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Hill, Newsweek, and the New York Times, among other outlets. Connect with her online at and follow her on Twitter @PollyJPrice.

Praise For…

“An authoritative history of America’s flawed responses to epidemics . . . A vigorous argument for unified public health measures.”
Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“Gripping prose and lucid analysis make this an essential study of what needs to change before the next epidemic.”
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“Short, readable, and well documented . . . [Price] clearly and ably lays out a timetable of disease and the legal and social response to it.”

“A masterful book for our times, a must-read for understanding how pandemics shape law, government, and society. Price takes us on a journey through history to offer vital lessons for the future.”
—Lawrence O. Gostin, University Professor and director of the WHO Center on Global Health Law, Georgetown University

“In Plagues in the Nation, Polly Price reminds us that epidemics have always represented crises, not merely in public health but in law and governance as well. This timely and skillful account of governmental responses to epidemics in US history should be required reading for anyone interested in developing a more effective and credible response to our current crisis, and the inevitable crises to come.”
—Joseph Crespino, author of Atticus Finch: The Biography

“In this timely and far-reaching book, Polly Price has skillfully examined the history of contagious diseases in the United States, from smallpox in the colonial era to the COVID pandemic. It should appeal to anyone seeking to understand our often muddled national response to public health crises.”
—James W. Ely Jr., author of The Contract Clause: A Constitutional History

“Among the many lessons Americans will draw from the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the most essential will concern the workings of our legal and constitutional systems. But as Polly Price explains in this brisk, engaging, and even moving account of how our local, state, and national governments have responded to massive crises of public health over the course of our history, these lessons are not new. A must-read for every concerned citizen and legislator!”
—Jack N. Rakove, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution

“All epidemics are different, but much can be learned from understanding the past performance of government and the impact and limits of legally based policies. Plagues in the Nation explores these issues during past and present epidemics in the United States and provides lessons for government and citizens to face the future.”
—James W. Curran, dean, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University

“Polly Price provides an insightful and riveting account of America’s decentralized and often ineffective response to epidemics past and present. Her meticulously researched and beautifully written history is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the historical and legal roots of the challenges we’ve faced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
—Wendy E. Parmet, author of The Health of Newcomers and Populations, Public Health, and the Law

Plagues in the Nation is essential reading if we are to understand the challenges posed by the current COVID pandemic and pandemics to come. A distinguished scholar of law and government, as well as an expert on issues of public health, Polly Price is also a first-rate historian whose description of earlier epidemics and pandemics shows the fundamental flaws in our decentralized public health system and the threat posed by our loss of trust in governmental and scientific institutions.”
—Dan T. Carter, author of Scottsboro and The Politics of Rage

“Polly Price’s book provides a comprehensive historical account of America’s encounters with epidemics and offers important correctives to effectively address them in the future.”
—Paula Kocher Barnes, former deputy associate general counsel, HHS (general counsel to CDC)

Product Details
ISBN: 9780807043493
ISBN-10: 0807043494
Publisher: Beacon Press
Publication Date: May 10th, 2022
Pages: 272
Language: English