The Inoculation Controversy

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The Inoculation Controversy


Colonial Plague. Smallpox was the dread disease of the eighteenth century. Highly contagious, it was marked by fever, vomiting, and the formation of pustules that scarred the body. It often reached epidemic proportions, especially in cities. Although known in Europe for centuries, smallpox was unknown in America until Europeans arrived. Smallpox and other infectious diseases raged through Native American populations. In early American towns the disease was a less frequent visitor than in European towns, hence in America it was more terrifying. Americans were sometimes hesitant about sailing to Europe simply because of their fear of the disease. As a result wealthy Americans who would otherwise send their sons to Edinburgh or London to be educated sent them instead to Harvard, Yale, or William and Mary.

Boston. In April 1721 a ship that carried smallpox among its crew entered Boston Harbor. Upon the appearance of the disease Boston authorities quarantined the sick and infected houses, but the epidemic spread. Clergyman Cotton Mather had heard about the use of inoculation from his slave Onesimus. Described by Mather as pretty intelligent, Onesimus informed his master that in Africa he had been inoculated for the smallpox and had never caught the disease. Asians and Africans had used this process for centuries. The physician

drew pus from a pustule of an infected person who had a mild case and inserted the same pus into a healthy person. Nine times out often the healthy person developed a mild case of the disease that was not life-threatening. Once the disease ran its course the person was immune to smallpox. Mather publicly called upon local physicians to inoculate Bostonians. Dr. Zabdiel Boylston responded by inoculating his six-year-old son and two slaves. During subsequent months Boylston inoculated over 150 more patients. Other doctors contributed as well, so that by the following year when the epidemic was over, almost three hundred people had been inoculated. Only six died, or 2 percent of the infected. Of the five thousand Bostonians who caught the disease but who had not been inoculated, about 18 percent died. Clearly inoculation worked.

Opposition. The only physician in Boston with a European medical degree, William Douglass, opposed inoculation from the outset. He organized most Boston physicians in opposition to the practice. Douglass argued that widespread inoculation without careful planning and execution could actually spread the disease. The opposition argued as well that Mather and Boylston were interfering in divine matters. If God chose certain people to become sick, what human should dare to oppose Gods will? Surprisingly, Boston clergymen came out on the side of Mather. Attacks and counterattacks occurred in the newspapers, but time and the obvious success of inoculation won the argument. Eventually Douglass himself came around to inoculation and became a lifelong advocate.


Isaac Asimov, Asimovs Chronology of Science and Discovery (New York: Harper & Row, 1989);

Otho Beall and Richard Shryock, Cotton Mather: First Significant Figure in American Medicine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1954);

Daniel Boorsin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (New York: Random House, 1958);

James Cassedy, Medicine in America: A Short History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991);

Raymond Stearns, Science in the British Colonies of North America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970).

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The Inoculation Controversy

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