smallpox innoculation -- 2/3/21

Today's selection -- from Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. The precursor to immunization:

"In the summer of 1721, an epidemic of smallpox, one of the deadliest afflictions of the era, besieged the city of Boston. It sent stricken people into quarantine, red flags signaling to all who might pass, 'God have mercy on this house.'

"Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister and lay scientist in Boston and had come into possession of an African man named Onesimus. The enslaved African told of a procedure he had undergone back in his homeland that protected him from this illness. People in West Africa had discovered that they could fend off contagions by inoculating themselves with a specimen of fluid from an infected person. Mather was intrigued by the idea Onesimus described. He researched it, and decided to call it 'variolation.' It would become the precursor to immunization and 'the Holy Grail of smallpox prevention for Western doctors and scientists,' wrote the medical ethicist and author Harriet A. Washington.

"During the 1721 outbreak, Mather tried to persuade Bostonians to protect themselves with this revolutionary method, but did not anticipate the resistance and rage, the 'horrid Clamour,' that arose from Bostonians. The idea sounded outlandish to them. They feared it could spread smallpox all the more, and they also wanted nothing to do with a practice that had come from Africa and had been suggested by an African slave. Physicians dismissed the procedure out of hand and 'resented being told by a gaggle of ministers that Africans had devised the panacea they had long sought,' Washington wrote. Rage turned to violence when someone hurled a lighted grenade into Mather's house. Mather escaped serious injury, but wrote that he could see no difference between adopting the African solution for smallpox and using the Native Americans' antidote for snake venom, which the colonists had readily taken up. 

"Only one physician, Zabdiel Boylston, was willing to try the new method. He inoculated his son and the enslaved people he owned. In the end, the epidemic would wipe out more than 14 percent of Boston's population. But of the 240 people that Boylston had inoculated, only six died -- one in forty, as against one in seven people who forwent inoculation. 

"By 1750, vaccinations, based on the method introduced by Onesimus, would be standard practice in Massachusetts and later in the rest of the country. 'What is clear is that the knowledge he passed on saved hundreds of lives -- and led to the eventual eradication of smallpox,' wrote the author Erin Blakemore. 'It remains the only infectious disease to have been entirely wiped out.'

"For his contribution to science, Onesimus does not appear even to have fully won his freedom. What little is known is that Mather grew sour on him, and Onesimus managed to buy partial freedom by paying Mather money toward the purchase of another slave."



Isabel Wilkerson


Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents


Random House


Copyright 2020 by Isabel Wilkerson


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