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Monday, June 21, 2021

June 21, 2021: Vaccine Studying: Smallpox

[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]

On three figures who deserve to be part of the (complex) story of smallpox inoculations alongside Boylston.

1)      Onesimus: I’ve written before about how the enslaved woman Tituba helps us better remember not just another side to the Salem Witch Trials, but also the consistent presence of enslaved people (especially African Americans, but also Native Americans) throughout colonial New England. Tituba’s experience, like all those affected by the events in Salem, was both horrific and extreme, but it does reflect this larger New England and American community—as does the life and influence of Onesimus, an enslaved African American who was brought to New England in the early 18th century, was gifted to Cotton Mather by his Boston congregation around 1706 (and given the name Onesimus by Mather at that time), and through his knowledge of and experiences with inoculation became a vital source of information for the application of that concept by Boylston 15 years later.

2)      Cotton Mather: I’ve also written before about Mather’s contributions to the development of smallpox inoculations, and how it significantly shifts his story from his frustrating role in the Salem Witch Trials. At that point I don’t believe I knew the story of Onesimus, however, which is partly a reflection of my own need to continue learning, but also a reminder that even in their more inspiring stories white men tend to dominate our narratives of history in ways that need challenging and changing. Moreover, while it seems that Onesimus offered his knowledge freely to Mather (and in so doing changed the course of history), it’s nonetheless important to note that Puritan minister Cotton Mather, one of early America’s most influential religious thinkers and leaders, was also a slaveowner. That’s all part of the smallpox story too.

3)      John Boylston: When local physician Zabdiel Boylston learned from Mather of the concept and possibilities of inoculation, he decided to try the process out, producing a great deal of controversy among his fellow Bostonians, to the point where he had to hide out in a secret space in his house for some time to avoid threats. While Boylston thus took a significant risk in experimenting with inoculation, the far greater risk still was undertaken by the three people he initially inoculated with a small dose of smallpox. Two of them, to continue the thread of my prior paragraphs, were unnamed enslaved men who deserve a central place in the story alongside Onesimus. The third was Boylston’s 12 year old son John, who while far from enslaved likewise likely had little choice in the matter. Given the fatal threat posed by smallpox, I understand why Zabdiel sought to inoculate his son, who seemingly survived and lived into adulthood; but the least we can do is commemorate young John Boylston as part of this complex smallpox story.

Next VaccineStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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