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1721 Two Hundred Seventy-five Years Ago

March 2023
2min read

The Inoculation Controversy

Around three o’clock on the morning of November 14, a crude grenade made of black powder and turpentine sailed through a window of Cotton Mather’s house in Boston. It landed in Mather’s guest room but failed to explode, thus sparing the life of his nephew. The attempted bombing was the most lurid episode in a campaign of intimidation aimed at Mather and his ally Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, whom rope-toting mobs had threatened to hang. What offense had these two men committed to enrage the Boston masses so violently? Inoculating their fellow citizens against smallpox.

Outbreaks of smallpox had occurred with grim frequency in colonial Boston since 1630. Mather had lived through earlier ones in 1678, 1690, and 1702, the last of which took his wife, Abigail. He and his fellow ministers explained the epidemics as divine retribution, meant to punish the wicked and chasten the proud. But around 1714 Mather, who had long been interested in science and medicine, heard of the African practice of inoculation from his slave Onesimus. He also read papers about inoculation in Turkey in a British scholarly journal. When smallpox made a lethal return to Boston in 1721, Mather resolved to give it a try.

The disease arrived in a ship from Tortuga in mid-April; within a month it was widespread. In early June Mather circulated an address to physicians advocating the “Wonderful Practice” of inoculation. Boylston read the manuscript and decided to act on its advice. On June 26 he inoculated his son and two slaves by opening veins and inserting pus from a smallpox victim. All three developed mild cases of the disease, as expected, and recovered without further complications. Encouraged by the results, Mather and Boylston began an aggressive inoculation campaign.

Instead of being hailed as saviors, the two were reviled by many Bostonians for interfering with God’s will and spreading the dreaded disease. (In fact, the crude procedure induced cases of smallpox that, while not usually fatal, could be quite painful and repulsive.) A heated war of pamphlets and letters ensued. Dr. William Douglass, the only man in Boston with a medical degree, led the vituperation, which continued for most of a year. As the epidemic waned in 1722, the fiercely anti-Mather New-England Courant , established the previous summer, published a series of mocking letters under the name Silence Dogood (an allusion to Mather’s popular Essays to Do Good ). The author, never identified, was the sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin, and the Dogood letters were his first published work.

Factors unrelated to medicine were at work in the dispute. Bostonians were losing their customary reverence for the clergy as ministers interfered boldly in secular issues, such as the printing of paper money. Class-based resentment accounted for some anti-clerical feeling, and Mather had recently made enemies by taking sides in a fight over the establishment of a new church. The grenade tossed into his house had a message attached (in a way meant to survive the explosion) that combined doctrinal and medical concerns: “ COTTON MATHER , I was once one of your Meeting; But the Cursed Lye you told of — —, You know who, made me leave You, You Dog; And, Damn You, I will Enoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”

Before running its course in the spring, the epidemic took nearly 8 percent of Boston’s population. After passions had cooled, most opponents admitted that the novel procedure had worked. Of the 287 people Boylston had inoculated, only six had died, and at least four of those had already been infected. When smallpox broke out anew in 1730, many Boston physicians embraced inoculation—even Douglass.

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