- Historic Sites
When Cotton Mather Fought The Smallpox
In Boston, where one in six was dying of the plague, the great divine battled for a new and radical idea
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
“The Town is become almoft an Hell upon Earth, a City full of Lies, and Murders, and Blafphemies, as far as Wifhes and Speeches can render it fo: Satan feems to take a ftrange Pofsession of it, in the epidemic Rage, againft that notable and powerful and fuccefsful way of faving the Lives of People from the Dangers of the Small-Pox . What can I do on this Occafion, to gett the miferable Town difpofsefsed of the evil Spirit which has taken fuch an horrible Pofsefsion of it? What befides Prayer with Fading, for it?“—August 24, 1721.
from the diary of Cotton Mather
In the spring of 1721 Boston was greatly alarmed by the news that there were cases of smallpox in town. The dreaded disease had apparently been brought in toward the end of April by a Negro from a ship recently arrived from the Caribbean, and although the authorities had quarantined the house in which he lay ill—the only measure then available to combat its spread—the contagion was soon out of hand.
During the next weeks and months it took on terrible dimensions. When it had finally run its course more than half of the small community’s ten thousand inhabitants had contracted the disease, more than eight hundred persons had succumbed to it. As if this were not enough, the town’s ordeal was heightened by a medical controversy which split the community wide open and shook it to its foundations. Bloodshed often appeared imminent. At one juncture it was avoided only by the misfiring of a grenade.
Smallpox, long endemic in Europe, had been introduced repeatedly to the New World from there. With its high mortality, with its often agonizing course, and with the hideous disfigurement it indicted on those who survived, it ranked as one of mankind’s most awful scourges. When Boston realized that smallpox had again appeared in its midst, the populace was terror-stricken. The older generation, in whose memory the epidemic of 1702 was still vividly alive, was especially filled with trepidation.
The medical profession was helpless. Its measures were of no avail. The disease had to take its course, with survival or death a matter of chance or divine intervention, according to one’s philosophical and religious points of view.
Early in the epidemic the Reverend Cotton Mather, long a pillar of the community, attempted to interest the town’s physicians in “the Practice of conveying and suffering the Small-pox by Inoculation,” a practice “never used … in our Nation.” Having casually heard about it some years earlier from some African slaves, his interest was fully awakened when, subsequently, he chanced upon a communication in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, reporting upon its apparently successful use in Turkey. Then and there he decided to advocate its introduction if smallpox should again occur in Boston. He would now lay the matter before the physicians. Accordingly, in a letter to one of the practitioners, he requested that the physicians meet for a consultation and deliberate upon his proposal.
Tactless and overbearing, Mather had not sent his letter to the one man who, for many reasons, should have been approached. This man, young Dr. William Douglass, Edinburgh-trained and the town’s only fullfledged medical graduate, was incensed. He was thoroughly convinced that the method was inherently dangerous; it consisted, after all, in inoculating pus from the blisters ol a smallpox sufferer into the skin of a healthy person! (The procedure of vaccination with cowpox virus lay many years in the future.) He was also furious about Mather’s obviously intentional slight; finally he resented the fact that Mather, a clergyman, should presume to instruct the medical profession. In the early days when the colony was still in its infancy the ministers, it was true, were often of necessity called upon to function as medical practitioners. But now, with an ample supply of qualified doctors, they should cease dabbling in medicine.
The physicians, probably upon Douglass’ advice, decided against the method. But Matlier persisted in his efforts. One doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, in total opposition to Jiis confreres, decided to accede to Mather’s proposal and on June 26 he inoculated his young son and two of his slaves. Several days later a small number of other persons underwent the treatment.
Douglass flew up in arms. He fiercely opposed Mather’s sponsoring of inoculation, based as it was only on the reports of two little-known Turkish doctors and on the testimony of some uneducated slaves. It was not only preposterous and unheard-of to subject large numbers of people to so dangerous an operation without any preliminary trials, it was a vast gamble to transmit the dreaded disease to a healthy person by inoculation in the hope that its course woidd be less severe if acquired in this way.
There were absolutely no sound medical arguments upon which to base such expectation. Also there was the added ha/ard that the inoculated patient would become a source of further spread of the epidemic. Surely it would be irresponsible to permit inoculation on the say-so of a mere layman against the advice of the physicians. Mather was indignant. Hadn’t his interest in medical problems always been more than casual? Hadn’t he even at one time contemplated becoming a physician? Above all, was he not an instrument of the Lord burdened with the responsibility of watching over and protecting his flock?