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A "Doubtful and Dangerous Practice": The 1721 Boston Inoculation Controversy, and Uncovering African Medical Knowledge in Early American Newspapers

In 1721, residents of Boston began to fall ill with smallpox, in what would become the city’s sixth such epidemic since 1630.  At this time, neither physicians nor laypeople conceptualized disease in terms of discrete entities such as germs or viruses; instead, they held that illness originated in physical imbalances, often caused by unhealthy environmental conditions or dietary choices.  Additionally, many colonists believed that illness was a divine judgment upon people that could be healed through prayer and repentance.  Consequently, Boston city leaders ordered 26 free Africans to wash the streets in hopes of preventing smallpox from spreading.  Their efforts were unsuccessful, for the disease infected over half of the city’s population of 11,000, eventually killing over 800 citizens in just over a year. 

What made this epidemic unique was a concurrent debate about inoculation, a preventative treatment for smallpox, and about the nature of trustworthy medical knowledge. Shortly after the epidemic began, Cotton Mather, one of Boston’s most eminent ministers, proposed inoculation as a means of preventing an epidemic and saving lives.  Similar to vaccination, inoculation gave patients a mild case of the illness, one that ideally made them immune to subsequent outbreaks but that did not endanger their health.  Unlike vaccination, however, which involved using cowpox to ensure that patients would not contract a full case of smallpox or spread the illness, inoculation involved placing a small amount of smallpox virus into an open cut.  Mather wrote that he first learned of inoculation around 1706, from his African slave, whom the minister had renamed Onesimus, and who had been inoculated in Africa, where knowledge of inoculation was widespread by the eighteenth century.  Although Mather wrote that Africans’ mental faculties were inferior to those of colonists, he also argued that Africans’ plain words allowed them to convey the truths of inoculation without bias or embellishment.

If Mather’s support for inoculation now appears as a defining moment in the history of modern medicine, his proposal incited bitter controversy in 1721.  Many Bostonians angrily opposed Mather and physician Zabdiel Boylston, who, at Mather’s direction, began inoculating people in 1721.  In what was perhaps the most vehement act of opposition, someone threw a lit grenade—that did not explode—through Mather’s window in November 1721.  Less violently, William Douglass, a physician trained in Europe, strongly opposed inoculation on the grounds that it had not been tested or proven to be a safe procedure.  Douglass likewise critiqued Mather’s reliance on Onesimus’s testimony, arguing that “The more blundering and Negroish they [Africans] tell their Story, it is the more credible says C.M.; a paradox in Nature; for all they say true or false is after the same manner” (Inoculation of the Small Pox as Practiced in Boston, Consider’d in a Letter to A—S—M.D. & F.R.S. in London, Boston, 1722, 7).  Douglass held that Africans’ speech reflected not their honesty but their inability to think and speak rationally.

The inoculation controversy, as the debate came to be called, played out publically, in Boston’s newspapers: first in the Boston Gazette, the city’s primary source of news, which primarily reprinted London news articles.  A new, controversial newspaper, The New-England Courant, took as its “chief Design” the opposition of the “doubtful and dangerous Practice of inoculating the Small Pox” with the goal of making ministers bring “some other Arguments upon the Stage than the naked Merits of their Character…

From its first issue on August 7, 1721, the Courant and its publisher James Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s older brother) offered a site from which Douglass and other anti-inoculators could critique Mather and other ministers anonymously, without fear of retribution.  The Courant ran articles critical of ministers’ authority, generally, and of inoculation in particular.  Mather responded with an article printed in the Boston Gazette, thus departing from the paper’s usual focus on news from Europe.

These news articles expose key questions at stake in the controversy about inoculation.  In particular, Mather and Douglass debated enslaved Africans’ status as sources of medical knowledge, especially focusing on their oral testimony and their inoculated bodies.  Reading the Courant chronologically, much as readers in 1721 would have, exposes the centrality of African knowledge and testimony to the inoculation controversy, a centrality overlooked by most recent studies of the epidemic.  In the first issue of the Courant, Douglass wrote an anonymous column in which he satirized Mather’s claim that inoculation would prevent illness.  Douglass proposed that the colonists use inoculation in their ongoing conflicts with Abenaki Indians (part of England’s wars with France).  Inoculating warriors would, Douglass suggested, infect the rest of the Abenakis and end the war—because it spread smallpox rather than halting it.  He wrote that colonists’ “Ammunition [should] be of the best Proof, that is a Combination of Negro Yaws, and confluent Small Pox.”

Douglass’s facetious suggestion to use inoculation as a weapon supported his earnest argument that the practice spread disease, and it cast Africans’ testimony about inoculation as a dangerous illness, rather than as “proof,” or evidence that might attest to the safety or usefulness of a procedure.

Mather responded to Douglass’s critique in the Boston Gazette by representing Africans as “Authentic Witnesses.

In his “Faithful Account, of what has occur’d under the late Experiments of the Small-Pox managed and governed in the way of Inoculation” Mather cited practices of inoculation in Africa as evidence of its safety, in this way suggesting that African medical practices could be effectively transferred to the Americas.  Moreover, he explained that “There is an Army of Witnesses, ready to sign with their Hands, unto the Truth of this Relation” (Boston Gazette, October 23, 1721, page 3).  Mather’s presentation of Africans as an “Army of Witnesses” made their testimony foundational to the “Truth” of statements about inoculation.  Moreover, his suggestion that Africans are “ready to sign with their Hands” opposed Douglass’s dismissal of Africans as carrying only diseases, not knowledge.

These examples offer just a glimpse of the ways that the status of a new medical procedure was intimately connected to views of African bodies and minds and to Africans’ decision to circulate their knowledge of inoculation.  The newspapers further attest to the ways that these contrasting views were articulated and contested publically, in Boston’s nascent public sphere.  As Mather’s and Douglass’s subsequent newspaper articles, speeches, and treatises show, each man remained committed to his argument.  After Mather’s death, Douglass admitted that inoculation could be effective, but he maintained that Africans possessed no medical knowledge of value to colonists.  Mather’s slave Onesimus, meanwhile, had purchased his freedom from his master shortly after their first conversation about inoculation in 1716, thus obtaining more control over his labor and knowledge.  If Onesimus’s contributions to colonial knowledge of inoculation have not been the focus of studies of the epidemic or of inoculation, the issues of the New-England Courant and the Boston Gazette show that his medical knowledge and healthy body were certainly central in 1721.

About the Author

Dr. Kelly Wisecup specializes in the literatures of colonial America and the Atlantic world, science and empire, and race in the early Americas. She is the author of Medical Encounters: Knowledge and Identity in Early American Literatures (University of Massachusetts Press, for the Native Americans of the Northeast series, 2013). Medical Encounters examines how British American colonists, Native Americans, and Africans exchanged medical knowledge in colonial encounters as well the influences of such exchanges on early American literatures. In addition, her scholarly edition of Edward Winslow’s Good News from New England was published in July 2014. She is at work on a second book project, Objects of Encounter, which examines how colonists and Native Americans employed practices of compilation and collection to tell histories and to establish social, spiritual, and environmental relations. Her articles have appeared in Early American Literature, Early American Studies, Atlantic Studies, Studies in Travel Writing, Literature and Medicine, The Southern Literary Journal, and Literature Compass. She was awarded the Society of Early Americanists’ Best Essay Award for 2009-2010, and she has received grants and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the American Philosophical Society, the John Carter Brown Library, the Newberry Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Cosmos Club Foundation, and the University of North Texas. In addition, she was winner of the 2012 Thomas Preston Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching from UNT's Department of English. Her article “Travel to New Worlds: Reconceptualizing Research and Early America with Early American Imprints” appeared in a previous issue of The Readex Report (Vol. 8, No. 2).

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