By Peter X. Accardo, Scholarly and Public Programs Librarian
Among the texts available through Harvard Library’s online collection Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics is Some Account of What is said of Inoculating or Transplanting the Small Pox (*AC7.M4208.721s), anonymously printed in 1721 and long thought to be written by Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728); this attribution is attested by an early owner who has written Mather’s name below the introduction. In the pamphlet Mather abstracts two treatises on inoculation published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. But it was the personal testimony of Onesimus, an enslaved West African who had been “gifted” to Mather by members of his congregation, that proved decisive in his advocacy of inoculation against a devastating outbreak of smallpox in Boston in 1721. In an earlier letter to the Royal Society, Mather wrote,
Enquiring of my Negro-man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow, Whether he ever had the Small-Pox; he answered, both, Yes, and No; and then told me, that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of the Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding that it was often used among the Guramantese [likely corresponding to the Berber peoples of southern Libya or the Coromantee from the coastal areas of modern-day Ghana], & whoever had the Courage to use it, was forever free from the Fear of the Contagion. He described the Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm the Scar.
Inoculation had been practiced in Africa and Eurasia well before its introduction in Western Europe and North America. As there was no consensus on the efficacy of inoculation in combating smallpox, Mather’s views on the subject were deemed controversial and even unlawful, especially since they were based on the testimony of an enslaved man. Still, his words offered hope to panicked Bostonians fearful of contracting the deadly disease.
Many turned to Mather’s friend, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, for treatment. Of the 242 people he inoculated (including his teenage son and enslaved people in his household), just six, or about one in 40, succumbed to the illness. Citywide the death toll approached 850, or a mortality rate of one in seven out of the entire infected population. Boylston’s procedure would have resembled the one described by Onesimus, whereby pus from an infected person was introduced into a modest incision in the patient’s arm. Adding interest to the Houghton copy of Mather’s pamphlet is a marginal note of a contemporary smallpox survivor, who writes, “It is so: & desirable too. It happened to the writer of this note. He was inoculated five times, thrice needlessly.” Many years would pass before inoculation became more widely accepted as a public health strategy.
When smallpox revisited Boston in 1775, it was during an epidemic that claimed over 100,000 lives throughout North America. Native American communities were especially hard hit. George Washington, then quartered in Cambridge as the newly appointed Commander of the Continental Army, recognized the danger this “invisible enemy” posed to his troops. His preemptive policy to quarantine infected troops and to inoculate the uninfected may have saved his army and the cause for American independence from Great Britain from ruin.
In recent years, Onesimus has been honored for his timely and life-saving contribution to practical epidemiology in Colonial America. But his legacy gains new force and meaning during the current COVID-19 global pandemic and the race for a vaccine. “Racism and systemic injustice have historically made it impossible for individuals like Onesimus to be acknowledged as the key contributors to science that they truly were,” explains LaShyra Nolen, a first-year student at Harvard Medical School, in a recent article: “It is up to us to reevaluate the stories behind science’s greatest accomplishments and find the hidden luminaries who deserve a place in history.”
As we approach the 400th anniversary of Onesimus’ education of Mather on smallpox inoculation—one of many contributions Africans and diasporic peoples have made to the field of medicine both willingly and without their consent—it is particularly upsetting and unjust that, due to the persistence of systemic anti-black racism and inequality in 2020, “a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States [and within this group there is] an overrepresentation of African Americans” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).