In the past weeks, one of the hot topics of discussion has been around vaccination. Three companies have claimed that they will have a covid vaccine ready for use by the beginning of the new year. A lot of people are not excited about getting the vaccination due to a dark history where some Americans were experimented on to lead us to some of the vaccinations that we use today. However, not all history is dark, as proven by the story I am about to tell you.
Back when the United States was nothing more than a group of colonies owned by England, one of the most common sicknesses that spread like wildfire in the New World was smallpox. Ever since the first Europeans set foot in the New World, many Native Americans and Europeans suffered from the Smallpox virus. It was said to also have been brought to the American colonies by the many ships that were unsanitary and carried infected slaves who transmitted the virus unknowingly (probably all human cargo on the ship). It was very contagious and patients experienced fever, fatigue, and a crusty rash that could leave disfiguring scars. In up to 30% of cases, it killed.
In 1706, Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister, was given a slave by his congregation. Mather renamed the slave to Onesimus after a Biblical slave(one belonging to St. Paul) whose name meant “useful”. Mather referred to his ethnicity as “Guaramantee”, which may have referred to the Coromantee Akan people of Ghana. Mather was known for his role in the Salem Witch Trials and believed that slave owners had the duty of converting their slaves to Christianity and to educate them. Mather also did not agree with the “Devilish rites” of Africans and worried that enslaved people might openly rebel. Mather did not trust Onesimus, quoting in his diary that he believed he was “wicked” and “useless.” But his beliefs would change once Onesimus shared a piece of information that would change the course of a future Smallpox outbreak.
In 1716, while slaving away for Mather, losing his children at a young age, and unsuccessfully gaining his freedom from Mather, Onesimus told Mather that he knew how to prevent smallpox. He shared with Mather that back in Africa he had smallpox, and then he didn’t. He told Mather that “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cut the Skin, and put in a drop. “It had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it…and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.”
The operation Onesimus referred to consisted of rubbing pus from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. Once the infected material was introduced into the body, the person who underwent the procedure was inoculated against smallpox. It would forever leave a scar on the person’s skin. The variolation method would become the precursor to vaccination (leaser form of the virus to an individual to give them immunity from the virus). Variolation helped to strengthen the immune response and protected against the smallpox disease. The variolation method of inoculation was long practiced in Africa among sub-Saharan people. The practice continued amongst the slave communities of America, despite regional origin.
Mather further verified Onesimus’ story with other enslaved people and learned that the practice had been used in Turkey and China as well. With more evidence to back up Onesimus’s claim, Mather took this information and became a new evangelist for inoculation. Mather received a lot of push back from his fellow white colonists who did not want to take the advice of a black slave or perform a form of “slave voodoo”. Mather was vilified and a local newspaper called The New England Courant whose editor was James Franklin, the older brother of Benjamin Franklin, was one of the worst opponents of his cure. Mather witnessed an explosive device thrown through his windows with an angry note. Other preachers argued that it was against God’s will to expose his creatures to dangerous diseases. Doctors, ministers, laymen, and Boston city officials argued that the practice of inoculating healthy individuals would spread the disease and that it was immoral to interfere with the working of divine providence. Mather was also publicly ridiculed for relying on the testimony of a slave as it was commonly anticipated that enslaved Africans would attempt an overthrow of white society; assuming that African medicine was a ploy to poison white citizens. The Acts and Resolves law was further passed in Boston which included race-based punishments and codes to prevent slave or servant uprisings showing a society skeptical of African medicine.
By 1721, Boston, Massachusetts was encountering another wave of smallpox. This was the chance that Mather needed to prove that Onesimus’s cure could save the population of Boston. On April 22, a ship named the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies with smallpox on board, sickening about half of the city’s residents with smallpox. Zabdiel Boylston, the only physician in Boston who supported the technique of inoculation with Mather, inoculated his son and his slaves against the disease. Then, he began inoculating other Bostonians. Of the 242 people he inoculated, only six died—one in 40, as opposed to one in seven deaths among the population of Boston who didn’t undergo the procedure.
The smallpox epidemic wiped out 844 people in Boston among the 5,889 non-inoculated smallpox patients, 14 percent of the population. It may have been much less if some Bostonians did go through with inoculation. In the aftermath, Mather and Boylston were lionized for their courage, and Boylston received accolades in London. Benjamin Franklin, the younger brother of the editor whose newspaper bashed Mather and Boylston, would become an important advocate of inoculation, especially after his own son died of smallpox. Surprisingly, Franklin had a personal encounter with Zabdiel Boylston in London, not long after the smallpox crisis. He had run out of money and options, and Boylston helped him with a crucial loan of 20 guineas, despite the fact that Franklin and his brother had attacked his medical efforts throughout 1721. Franklin later told Boylston’s relative that he owed everything he was to Zabdiel Bolyston.
London and Boston in 1722 and 1726, respectively, performed trials on citizens and, on average, decreased the mortality rate from 17% to 2% of the infected population. By 1796, the vaccine based on cowpox would be developed by Edward Jenner. By the mid-1800s, variolation was discontinued in favor of immunization with cowpox as immunization was safer and more effective than variolation.
So are you going to take the Covid vaccination? I’m still going to let others try it first and if all turns out well I MAAAAAAAAY take the vaccine. 😊