Waterhouse, Benjamin (1754-1846)

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Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846)



Beginnings. Benjamin Water-house was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1754, the son of a judge. He studied medicine in his hometown for several years, but with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 he left for England, where he was placed under the care of relatives. He continued his studies in Edinburgh, Scotland, and at Leyden in the Netherlands, where he graduated in 1780. After traveling through Europe, he returned to America.

Harvard. When the Harvard Medical School was established in 1783, Benjamin Waterhouse was appointed professor of Physic (as medicine was then called) and served in that capacity until 1812. Waterhouse was known for his emphasis on investigation, as expounded in his The Rise, Progress, and Present State of Medicine (1791), which distinguished him from theoreticians such as Benjamin Rush who were often too eager to make their observations fit a unified theory. Although Water-houses most popular book was Cautions to Young Persons Concerning Health Shewing the Evil Tendency of the Use of Tobacco upon Young Persons; More Especially the Pernicious Effects of Smoking Cigars (1805), he is best known now for his courageous work with smallpox vaccination.

Smallpox. In 1800, using English physician Edward Jenners cowpox vaccine, Waterhouse vaccinated his children, then deliberately exposed them to smallpox, proving that the inoculation provided protection against the disease. That same year he wrote an explanation of his work called A Prospect of Exterminating the Small Pox. Waterhouses work was supported by Thomas Jefferson, who, while president, had his entire household (including slaves) inoculated with vaccine he received from his friend at Harvard. But Waterhouse still had a battle to fight. Poor-quality vaccine and improper vaccination caused an outbreak of smallpox in Massachusetts, and a it took a special investigation by the Boston Board of Health to clear Waterhouse and prove that vaccination was effective. By 1810 Waterhouse was not on good terms with his younger colleagues at Harvard, and after failing in his attempt to set up a rival medical school, he resigned. In 1813 President James Madison appointed him medical superintendent of New England military posts, a position he held until 1820. In the last quarter century of his long life, Waterhouse turned to literary pursuits, none of which was comparable to the work he had accomplished as a pioneer American physician. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1846.


Ola Elizabeth Winslow, A Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

Benjamin Waterhouse

views updated May 17 2018

Benjamin Waterhouse

The American physician Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846) introduced cowpox vaccination against smallpox in the Boston area in 1800.

Benjamin Waterhouse was born at Newport, R.I., on March 4, 1754, the son of Timothy Waterhouse, a chairmaker. His mother was a cousin of Dr. John Fothergill, an eminent London physician. This family connection, plus the influence of the Scottish physicians practicing in Newport, led Waterhouse into medicine as an apprentice to Dr. John Haliburton. He spent most of 1777-1778 studying medicine in London and Edinburgh, then went to Leiden in late 1778.

Waterhouse returned to Newport in 1782 and joined the medical department of Harvard College the next year as professor of the theory and practice of physic. He married Elizabeth Oliver in 1788; she died in 1815, after giving birth to six children, and he remarried in 1819.

In 1799 Waterhouse learned of Edward Jenner's work in England, using cowpox as a vaccination against smallpox. Waterhouse immediately published a paper on this procedure, pointing out the advantage of cowpox as a very mild disease. Securing some cowpox matter in 1800, he inoculated his five-year-old son and a servant boy. He then exposed the servant boy to smallpox, resulting in a very mild infection, limited to the arm. While continuing to vaccinate with cowpox matter, Waterhouse began publicizing the method, notably in A Prospect of Exterminating the Small Pox (1800). Unfortunately, the need for pure cowpox material for inoculation and the need for medical supervision of inoculation procedures were not realized, and soon inoculation was being administered by the general populace, resulting in an epidemic. Criticism directed against Waterhouse was allayed when he demanded a complete investigation by the Boston board of health in 1802, which verified all his claims for cowpox vaccination. From 1802 he continued to publicize and encourage vaccination in Massachusetts and neighboring states, constantly stressing the need for purity of vaccine.

In 1804 Waterhouse began an attack on the Harvard students for their use of tobacco and liquor, which he was convinced was responsible for the rise in incidence of consumption and nervous disorders. By 1810 Waterhouse was involved in a dispute with college officials and a number of younger medical men over the future direction of the medical school. He was committed to the lecture system exclusively and opposed the development of clinical facilities at a new site near the proposed Massachusetts General Hospital. After trying to establish a rival medical school, called the College of Physicians, Waterhouse was forced to resign from Harvard in 1812.

Waterhouse was medical superintendent of military posts in New England (1813-1820), which gave him time for a literary career. His best-known work is A Journal of a Young Man of Massachusetts, the story of a ship's doctor imprisoned by the British in the War of 1812. He died at his home in Cambridge on Oct. 2, 1846.

Further Reading

Some mention of Waterhouse's life and work is in Thomas F. Harrington, The Harvard Medical School: A History, Narrative and Documentary, 1782-1905 (1905), and Henry R. Viets, A Brief History of Medicine in Massachusetts (1930). Brooke Hindle, The Pursuit of Science in RevolutionaryAmerica, 1735-1789 (1956), is the best source for general background.

Additional Sources

The Life and scientific and medical career of Benjamin Waterhouse: with some account of the introduction of vaccination in America, New York: Arno Press, 1980. □

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