Between 1721 and the signing of our Declaration of Independence, smallpox inoculations saved some of the men we now call our Founders, that group of revolutionaries considered unmatched in their political, diplomatic, and ideological talents. Although George Washington survived his brush with naturally acquired smallpox, he recognized inoculation was a wartime necessity. Benjamin Franklin’s four-year old son died of the disease soon after Franklin decided against inoculating the young boy. Franklin carried this burden of guilt for the rest of his life. John Adams and his wife, Abigail, chose inoculation, at different times and for different reasons. Thomas Jefferson opted for inoculation, as well, and experienced no lasting effects. Except, perhaps, a newfound belief in the evolution of practical medicine.
Jefferson was a true skeptic of physicians. He believed doctors killed more people than they saved. In fact, it’s been said that whenever Jefferson encountered a group of physicians he would look toward the sky in search of circling vultures. Jefferson was of the belief that the body could mostly heal itself. As physicians treated (and killed) patient after patient with mercury-infused milk and regular bloodletting (a favorite of Washington’s, and the very treatment he requested just before his own death), Jefferson opted to take one for the team and arranged to get himself a smallpox inoculation. He soon became an enthusiastic supporter of inoculations, even insisting his slaves be given the same preventative treatment.
Speaking of slaves, Onesimus, whose name means useful in Latin, and Cotton Mather had quite the slave and master relationship. Mather considered Onesimus to be extremely likable and intelligent, and Onesimus felt secure enough with Mather to purchase his freedom. Onesimus still came back to shovel Mather’s walkway, perform various manual labors, and eventually paid Mather back for a bunch of stuff he’d stolen back in the day. Even though Mather once wrote that Onesimus was becoming pretty lazy and useless, their working relationship was one of respect and, dare I say, affection. After Onesimus introduced Mather to the practice of smallpox inoculation in 1721, which had been performed in parts of West Africa for generations, Mather was smitten, both with the concept and with his former slave. Mather was gracious enough to give credit to Onesimus when he wrote to the Royal Society about Onesimus’s groundbreaking crash course on how to prevent smallpox.
But does the name Cotton Mather sound even vaguely familiar to you? It should, and not because Mather was partly responsible for saving thousands of lives with his support of inoculation. Mather was, in fact, also partly responsible for the deaths of quite a few others back in Salem, Massachusetts.
That’s right! It’s the same guy!
COTTON MATHER: ULTIMATE kind of WITCH HUNTER but also VAX PIONEER! (Mather also had issues with pirates and the evils they embodied, but that’s something I’ll have to delve into another time.)
Mather was one of inoculation’s earliest supporters, decades before the Revolutionary War. And this may have been why his neighbors were initially against the practice. Considering the reputation he’d only recently made for himself in his witch-hunting wake, a lot of people simply believed that Mather just wanted to infect everyone with smallpox and kill them. Can you blame them? Mather’s witch-hunting story can be confusing, though. Historical documents tell us that Mather did and did not believe in spectral evidence. They tell us that Mather did and did not condone the use of spectral evidence in the trials. The only thing I’ve managed to gather from it all is that Mather, one of the most influential Puritan ministers of his day, was a big fan of speedy executions. He believed that the execution of every witch in New England was a miracle from God. And New England’s cup runneth over with God’s miracles.
Some say Mather’s work with the promotion of smallpox inoculations was his redemption, though it took decades for that to even cross people’s minds. Mather, like Adams, Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson, was a complicated character. Mather lost most of his loved ones to smallpox, leaving him to often feel displaced and alone. He was hated by multiple communities and got into sermon wars with other ministers. He even survived a botched firebombing attempt on his house once. It’s no wonder this guy battled so much internal conflict. It sometimes turned Mather an absolute train wreck.
One Boston newspaper called The New England Courant was extremely critical of smallpox inoculations and made it a point to publish stories about attacks on those who supported the practice. Mather’s assassination attempt made the news, of course. Another early and staunch supporter, Zabdiel Boylston, the town doctor, had been threatened with bodily harm if he even tried to leave his property. These stories all made it into the hands of the newspaper’s sixteen-year old apprentice, Benjamin Franklin.
In his autobiography, Franklin wrote:
In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.
Historically, even the men and women we revere the most have had to be convinced. Not by science, but by death. By personal loss and the idea that they could have done better, could have done more. Perhaps, like Washington and Jefferson, we can give value to the lives of those who society tells us are undeserving. Like Adams, we can finally adhere to the advice of experts and implore our families to do the same. Like Franklin, we can admit our failures and work to save other people’s children, even if we couldn’t save our own. And, like Cotton Mather, we can again be presented with opportunities to redeem our former selves.