Black History Month-Smallpox Inoculation

African Slave Instrumental in Use of Smallpox Inoculation

Did you know that we owe the the credit for the practice of inoculation and the saving of thousands of lives to a  West African slave living in Boston in 1702?

Smallpox – A Killer Disease

Smallpox – it sounds so innocuous. Yet this unassuming  sounding disease killed nearly 20,000 people in Boston, Massachusetts alone during  the 18th century.

With an incubation period of 7 to 17 days, the number of people affected by one person increased exponentially with each contact. An infected traveler could be responsible for the infection of hundreds of people by interacting with a few people in each town before he even knew he had contracted the disease.

Smallpox moved swiftly through towns and cities and turned neighbor against neighbor. It was an indiscriminate killer with no regard for social status, color, freedom or age.  When Smallpox came to town,  no one was safe.

Major Outbreak in 1702

America was hit hard in 1702 by this disease. In Boston alone more than 4,000 died.  Cotton Mather, a Bostonian slave owner, minister, and scientific enthusiast, learned about the practice of inoculation from his young African slave, Onesimus. Inoculation, the practice of purposefully infecting a person with a small amount of a disease allowing the body to form a natural immunity, had been  practiced in Onesimus’ home village in West Africa.

Onesimus told Rev. Mather how his tribe collected the Smallpox scabs from sick people and introduced a tiny bit of the disease into a healthy person via a puncture. This practice allowed the healthy person to develop antibodies against the disease, without actually contracting the often deadly Smallpox.

Mather presented his idea for inoculation masses against Smallpox in a 1716 letter to the Royal Society of London:   “ye Method of Inoculation” as the best means of curing smallpox and noted that he had learned of this process from “my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow. Onesimus explained that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding, That it was often used among [Africans] and whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.”

Like No Other Outbreak – 1721

Slaves were not the only thing that debarked ships in Boston Harbor April 22, 1721.  A deadly new strain of Smallpox from the West Indies also entered the crowded city. The older generations of Boston still recalled the terrible loss of life experienced in the 1702 outbreak. This new strain had the potential to cause much more devastation and death than ever experienced before.

Rev. Mather announced his intention to inoculate Bostonian’s to lessen the death toll. But he was met with hatred and prejudice. The devout thought it was an affront to God to interfere with the disease. Only God could decide who would live or die. Others refused the inoculations because it was “an African idea.”  How could a “savage” have any applicable medical information?

Mather’s home was attacked with a small bomb, which luckily did not explode as planned, and he found this note attached: “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’ll inoculate you with this; with a pox to you.’’

Mather was only able to convince only 250 people to accept the inoculation. Of these 250 people, six died. This equates to 2% mortality rate. Records in Boston show that during the 1721 Smallpox outbreak 6000 people contracted the disease and 850 died, or 14% of the persons infected died. Onesimus’ inoculations saved nearly 30 people in the small group that did accept the “African idea.”

A Slave Saved Thousands of Lives

Throughout the remaining 1700s, Mather and other scientists and doctors inoculated and saved thousands of Bostonian’s.

Source – The Fight Over Inoculation During the 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic

As this chart shows, the death rate from Smallpox dropped radically after 1721.

All thanks to a slave named Onesimus.











The Fight Over Inoculation During the 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic accessed online Jan 31, 2018     

“What are the symptoms of smallpox?” July 18, 2005.   accessed online March 23, 2009                                  

Onesimus (1706-1717)   Hutchin Center for African and African American Research  accessed February 3. 2018

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