Leff Families Professor of History


Ph.D., University of Chicago

Field of Specialty

United States social, legal, and political history.

Contact Information

Olin-Sang American Civilization Center 217

Michael Willrich

Michael Willrich has been a member of the Brandeis faculty since 1999. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on American political and legal history (from the colonial period to the present), crime and punishment, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and the literature of American history.
Willrich received his A.B. at Yale University and his MA and PhD at the University of Chicago. His scholarship centers on the social, legal, and political history of the United States since the Civil War. He is especially interested in how ordinary Americans experienced, tangled with, and shaped the increasingly powerful interventionist state that emerged with the rise of a new urban-industrial society around the turn of the twentieth century.
Willrich's first book, CITY OF COURTS: SOCIALIZING JUSTICE IN PROGRESSIVE ERA CHICAGO, traces the rise of radical new ideas about the social causes of crime in modern industrial cities and the new institutions of law and liberal governance that those ideas helped bring into being.
His second book, POX: AN AMERICAN HISTORY tells the story of the great wave of smallpox epidemics that struck America and its overseas territories around the turn of the twentieth century, spurring the growth of modern public health authority, and engendering widespread social and legal opposition to the government policy of compulsory vaccination.
Currently, Willrich is working on a book about anarchists' encounters with law and the state in early twentieth-century America. He has also begun research on two other projects: a political history of sports in the United States, and a post-frontier history of Americans who have strived to live "off the grid."
A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, Willrich’s scholarship has been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Mandel Center for the Humanities. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, Washington City Paper, and Mother Jones.


Willrich, Michael. "Struggles Over Individual Rights and State Power in the Progressive Era." The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, ed. Jon Butler. 2017.

Willrich, Michael. "Review." Rev. of Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America, by Kara W. Swanson. Law and History Review vol. 34 February, 2016: 242-45.

Willrich, Michael. "Review." Rev. of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, by Nancy K. Bristow. Journal of Social History vol. 48 Fall 2014: 231-233.

Willrich, Michael. "Review." Rev. of Knowledge in the Time of Cholera: The Struggle over American Medicine in the Nineteenth Century, by Owen Whooley. American Historical Review vol. 119 April 2014

Willrich, Michael. "“A Scar Nobly Got”." The Scientist July 2011.

Willrich, Michael. "Why Parents Fear the Needle." New York Times January 21, 2011: Op-Ed A 27.

Willrich, Michael. POX: AN AMERICAN HISTORY. New York: Penguin Press, 2011.

Willrich, Michael. "'The Least Vaccinated of Any Civilized Country': Personal Liberty and Public Health in the Progressive Era." Journal of Policy History 20. 1 (WINTER 2008) (2008).

Willrich, Michael. "Chapter 6: Criminal Justice in the United States." The Cambridge History of American Law. vol. 3 Ed. Christopher L. Tomlins and Michael Grossberg. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 195-231.

Willrich, Michael. "Urbanism is History: A Review Essay." Connecticut History 44. Spring 2005 (2005): 154-157.

Willrich, Michael. "'Close That Place of Hell': Poor Women and the Cultural Politics of Prohibition." Journal of Urban History 29. (2003).

Willrich, Michael. "Boyz to Men . . . And Back Again?: Revisiting a Forgotten Experiment in Juvenile Justice." Judicature 86. (2003): 258-262.

Willrich, Michael. "Dickering for Justice: Power, Interests, and the Plea Bargaining Juggernaut." Reviews in American History 31. (2003).

Willrich, Michael. "The Case for Courts: Law and Political Development in the Progressive Era." The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History., 2003

Willrich, Michael. City of Courts: Socializing Justice in Progressive Era Chicago. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Willrich, Michael. "Home Slackers: Men, the State, and Welfare in Modern America." Journal of American History 87. (2000): 460-489.

Willrich, Michael. "The Two Percent Solution: Eugenic Jurisprudence and the Socialization of American Law, 1900-1930." Law and History Review 16. (1998): 63-111.

Courses Taught

HIST 130b Crime and Punishment in U.S. History
HIST 160a American Legal History I
HIST 160b American Legal History II
HIST 161b American Political History
HIST 168b America in the Progressive Era: 1890-1920
HIST 200b Colloquium in American History
HIST 201a Major Problems in American Legal History