Plagues in the Nation is a narrative history of America through major outbreaks, one that examines how law and government affected the outcome of the epidemics that struck America, and how those outbreaks have in turn shaped our government.

“The book by Polly Price, Plagues In the Nation:  How Epidemics Shaped America provides a superb account of the history of epidemics that have impacted the U.S. and the response of the government to such events. While many see epidemics as primarily a public health problem, the reality as COVID-19 has reminded us, is that pandemics are also legal, economic, political and even partisan issues and the success or failure of the response depends in large part on the way these different aspects of the response align.  Another aspect of the response that is surprising to many is that the Federal Government plays a much smaller role that what is though by many and that much of the response depends on policies and practices implemented at the State and local level.  For example, Federal mandates for masking or vaccination have only limited impact as States can ultimately prohibit them. The lack of a national response to a pandemic is thus the Achilles heal of our response as a nation.  As we prepare for a future pandemic learning from these lessons and implementing policies and strategies to improve governance and coordination will determine our future success or repeated failures.” — Carlos del Rio, Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Global Health, Emory University

Kirkus Reviews (starred review): “An authoritative history of America’s flawed responses to epidemics.” “A vigorous argument for unified public health measures.” “A pointed study of how divisiveness and conflict undermine the nation’s response to disease.”

“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 U.S. 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

“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

“In this timely and far-reaching book Polly J. 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

“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

“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

Through each major epidemic, some all but forgotten, like Yellow Fever, some memorialized, like Spanish flu, still others more recent, like HIV/AIDS, this book examines how our country learned—and failed to learn—how to address the panic and chaos that are the companions of contagion.

The book was funded by the Carnegie Corporation. This article on the Carnegie web site provides background information on the book.

Plagues in the Nation is written by Polly Price of Emory University. The literary agent is Jessica Papin of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. The publisher is Beacon Press.


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