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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
All the while the epidemic took on greater dimensions. Was this not, people asked themselves, in consequence of Boylston’s and Mather’s unholy doings? Were these men not a menace to the whole community? Should they not be stopped by force if necessary? Resentment against the two men grew apace. Boylston was molested and insulted on the streets by “the vulgar.” Even “sober, pious people” declared that he ought to be treated as a murderer if any of his inoculated patients died. Mather, too, as he noted in his diary, became an object of the populace’s fury. The people, he wrote, raved, railed, blasphemed, and behaved not only “like Ideots but also like Franticks.” Conveniently, he attributed their anger to their blinding by Satan: “The Destroyer … has taken a strange Possession of the People. …” That he himself could possibly have been in the wrong apparently never entered his mind.
Thousands of fear-stricken Bostonians lied to the country while hundreds lay suffering and dying in their homes. Commerce and business came to a standstill. The General Assembly took refuge in Cambridge, and upon the death ol’ one of its members from SUKiIl])OX it suspended its sessions until the following spring.
The epidemic continued to spread, the mortalities increasing. In August there had been 26 deaths, in September 101, in October over 400. Indignation against Boylston and Mather turned into rage. On the fourteenth of November a lighted bomb was thrown into Mather’s house, but the fuse came off and it failed to explode.
Although this assault was generally condemned, the controversy continued in what has been called the “War of Pamphlets.” Tracts from the pens of the Inoculation Ministers appeared at the booksellers. They attempted to prove that inoculation was a “lawful practice, blessed by God,” and that it was not only not a dangerous but a “happy practice,” leading infallibly to recovery. The Reverend Benjamin CoIman virtually waxed poetic in describing the “ease and sweetness” with which the inoculated patients “lay praising God in their Beds. …”
Now Douglass renewed his attack upon inoculation and its clerical sponsors by recalling the persecution of the Quakers and the hanging of the Salem “witches,” blemishes on the ministers’ escutcheons that time had not blotted out. The Mathers answered in kind.
Then, however, came news from London to warm the hearts of the inoculators. In England, too, there occurred in 1721 a severe outbreak of smallpox, and there, too, inoculation found an impetuous lay advocate. But the advocate, far from being another stern Puritan divine, was one of the most broad-minded, charming women of the age, an earl’s daughter, a poetess who quarreled in verse with Alexander Pope.
Ever since she had accompanied her husband on a diplomatic mission to Turkey, where she had become acquainted with inoculation and convinced of its merits, it had been Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s ambition to bring “this useful invention into fashion in England.” That the country’s best medical minds had not sanctioned the practice did not deter Lady Mary. She bided her time. In the 1721 epidemic she asked Charles Maitland, the physician who four years earlier had inoculated her young son in Constantinople, to perform the operation now on her little daughter. She also enlisted the interest of the Princess of Wales, at whose request the King agreed to pardon a number of prisoners who were under sentence of death if they submitted to inoculation. Six convicts in Newgate Prison were ready to do so, and on August 9, about the time Boylston was injecting his patients, they were inoculated by Maitland. The results at first were good. The ice had been broken and during the next months further persons underwent inoculation at his hands. The culmination of Lady Mary’s crusade was the inoculation of the daughters of the Prince and Princess of Wales.
In Boston the epidemic gradually spent its force and tempers cooled. When a final evaluation of inoculation was made it appeared in a more favorable light. Of over 240 persons inoculated during the epidemic six had died, a ratio of one in forty. Among the rest of the population the mortality was about one in six. Smallpox acquired by.inoculation was apparently often less severe and mortality from it less high than when acquired “in the common way.” That inoculation had its merits even Douglass acknowledged, and when several years later there was a new outbreak of smallpox in Boston he too availed himself of it. But he never gave up his contention that Mather and Boylston had acted injudiciously and irresponsibly.
With improvement in its techniques, inoculation gained increasing favor as a method for the prophylaxis of smallpox until it finally, nearly eighty years later, gave way to Jenner’s magnificent discovery of vaccination.
There can no longer be any doubt that inoculation with virus from infected persons, despite its inadequacies, was not without value in combating smallpox. Of course, it did not “prevent” the disease. In fact, it transmitted the contagion, although usually in a greatly mitigated form. Why this should have been the case remained a mystery to the Eighteenth-Century physician. In the light of modern medical knowledge we may assume that introducing the smallpox virus into the skin was one of the reasons for the milder course of the resulting infection. Under “natural” conditions smallpox virus enters the human body by way of the air passages. Changing an infecting agent’s portal of entry has been shown to modify the course of the ensuing disease. Another reason for the less severe smallpox infection may be that smaller quantities of virus were introduced by inoculation than by inhalation.