Africa to Boston to London: |
Smallpox Inoculation, 1721
to Stop Infectious Disease
1721, a horrible smallpox epidemic was raging in Boston, carried to Boston on
a ship returning from the Caribbean island of Salt Tortuga. The famous Boston
minister Cotton Mather, who had watched three of his own children nearly die from
smallpox, urged doctors to begin performing inoculations against the disease.
Mather had learned of the ancient practice of inoculation from his slave,
Onesimus, who had been inoculated as a child in Africa. Mather was also aware
of accounts from doctors in the Mediterranean who had seen inoculation. The process
consisted of making a cut in the arm and dropping in a small amount of pus taken
from a smallpox sore. Against hostile public opinion, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston agreed
to try the technique, initially on his only son and two slaves. For a time, Dr.
Boylston was unable to leave his farm (located near City Hall Plaza) due to the
fury of his neighbors and colleagues. A lighted grenade was thrown into Cotton
But the results could not be denied. Before Dr. Boylston
took action, the death rate was one in twelve: after inoculation, it dropped to
one in forty! Two other doctors followed his lead, inoculating people in Cambridge
and Roxbury. Successful inoculation experiments like this one eventually led doctors
to develop vaccinations against the disease.
Mather wrote several reports
about his experiments with Boylston which were published by the Royal Society
in London in 1722. These, combined with the publications of Dr. Charles Maitland,
an important London physician and proponent of inoculation, influenced the British
royal family to undergo inoculation shortly after Mather's reports.
daring experiment rested directly on the testimony of a man brought to the colonies
as a slave. Eventually Cotton Mather freed Onesimus, not because he was instrumental
in ending the epidemic, but because Mather considered Onesimus disobedient.