Disease was an inseparable part of the New England story from the beginning. It arrived with the Great Migration of the 1630s, aboard the very ships that brought so many families to New England. It returned in 1666, and again in 1678, when an epidemic killed 340 Bostonians. A young Cotton Mather wrote, “Boston burying-places never filled so fast.” With time, local leaders began to develop crude public health policies—burying the dead quickly, flying red flags over houses affected, and requiring ships with sick sailors to stop at Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor. But as Bostonians knew, the next epidemic was always just over the horizon. In 1721, on April 22, the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies with smallpox on board, and despite precautions, a full-blown epidemic started.
This time, however, the city was better prepared, thanks to several unlikely heroes. Cotton Mather is not always the easiest figure to admire. The scion of a dynasty of ministers, he fought a lengthy rear-guard action against time, trying to stanch the ebbing of power among the city’s religious authorities. But he was surprisingly modern in some ways, and paid attention to the new forms of knowledge coming in on those ships. Another contradiction lay in his racial attitudes—his writings suggest that, more than most of his contemporaries, he admired Africans, but he also accepted slavery, and had raised no objections when his congregation presented him with a young slave in 1706. He named him Onesimus, after a slave belonging to St. Paul.
Mather had come close to choosing a career in medicine, and devoured the scientific publications of the Royal Society in London. As the society began to turn its attention to inoculation practices around the world, Mather realized that he had an extraordinary expert living in his household. Onesimus was a “pretty Intelligent Fellow,” it had become clear to him. When asked if he’d ever had smallpox, Onesimus answered “Yes and No,” explaining that he had been inoculated with a small amount of smallpox, which had left him immune to the disease. Fascinated, Mather asked for details, which Onesimus provided, and showed him his scar. We can almost hear Onesimus speaking in Mather’s accounts, for Mather took the unusual step of writing out his words with the African accent included—the key phrase was, “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”
Excited, he investigated among other Africans in Boston and realized that it was a widespread practice; indeed, a slave could be expected to fetch a higher price with a scar on his arm, indicating that he was immune. Mather sent the Royal Society his own reports from the wilds of America, eager to prove the relevance of Boston (and by extension, Cotton Mather) to the global crusade against infectious disease. His interviews with Onesimus were crucial. In 1716, writing to an English friend, he promised that he would be ready to promote inoculation if smallpox ever visited the city again.
Sounds good so far, but, sadly, people haven’t changed much in three-hundred years. It’s as if they’d rather be afraid than listen to the experts and learn what they can so they don’t have to be afraid:
As word spread of the new medicine, the people of Boston were terrified and angry. According to Mather, they “raised an horrid Clamour.” Their rage came from many sources; fear that inoculation might spread smallpox further; knowledge that the bubonic plague was on the rise in France; and a righteous fury that it was immoral to tamper with God’s judgment in this way. There was a racial tone to their response as well, as they rebelled against an idea that was not only foreign, but African (one critic, an eminent doctor, attacked Mather for his “Negroish” thinking). Some of Mather’s opponents compared inoculation to what we would now call terrorism—as if “a man should willfully throw a Bomb into a Town.” Indeed, one local terrorist did exactly that, throwing a bomb through Mather’s window, with a note that read, “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You; I’l inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”
Read the Ted Widmer’s whole story, How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox, at the Boston Globe