A few days ago I wrote about a “Dr. Gilson,” who escaped from the Plymouth jail in late February 1776 and informed people in Boston of an upcoming Continental Army offensive. I identified him as Dr. Samuel Gilston of Nantucket, and tentatively shared what information I could find.
Then Boston 1775 reader Tom Macy alerted me to a broadside that spelled the man’s name as “Gelston,” and that opened a big ol’ door. Dr. Samuel Gelston turns out to be much better documented than Dr. Samuel Gilston or Gilson.
Let’s start with his genealogical information: Samuel Gelston was born in 1727, died in 1782. He married a woman named Anne Cotton, and they had eight children, including the boy Roland (who I’d correctly guessed was the doctor’s son and successor as a physician on Nantucket). According to this article from Gelston.org, Samuel Gelston was the son of Hugh and Mary Gelston of Southampton, New York.
Fred B. Rogers’s 1972 article about the two doctors in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (shared on this page of Cape Cod medical history) states that in 1763 Dr. Samuel Gelston offered to inoculate people against the smallpox in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Inoculation then meant deliberate infection with (what one hoped was) a weak strain of the smallpox virus. Patients developed the disease, became contagious for a while, sometimes died, but more often survived with lifelong immunity.
Dr. Gelston’s inoculations were successful enough that he went to the Massachusetts capital when it suffered an outbreak the following year. The Boston Post-Boy for 5 Mar 1764 carried this advertisement:
Dr. SAMUEL GELSTONIn 1771, Dr. Gelston set up another smallpox inoculation hospital on Gravelly Island off Nantucket. Obed Macy’s 1835 History of Nantucket says:
Gives this Publick Notice to his Patients in Boston and the adjacent Towns that he has prepared (by Permission of his Excellency the Governor) all comfortable Accommodations for them at the Barracks at Castle-William, in order to their being inoculated for the Small-Pox under his immediate Care.
N. B. His Rooms are in that Part of the Barrack where the Patients of Dr. Nathaniel Perkins, Dr. [Miles] Whitworth and Dr. [James] Lloyd are received.
Dr. Gelston and Dr. [Joseph] Warren reside at Castle-William Day and Night.
All Persons inclined to go to the Barracks at Castle-William to be inoculated where Dr. Gelston resides, may apply to Dr. Lloyd at his House near the King’s Chapel, who will provide them a Passage to the Castle.
Houses were accordingly built, and the business commenced. But it was not long before the people began to murmur, and express their dissatisfaction with the measure; for some who had been there to be inoculated, were so careless as to put the inhabitants inThe locals asked the Massachusetts General Court to order Gelston to stop the inoculations, bought his property the next year, and tore down the buildings.
danger of taking the disease on their return.
Dr. Gelston applied to open hospitals in Edgartown in 1771 and in Buzzards Bay in 1772, and was turned down both times. Then came the war.
COMING UP: Dr. Gelston as a “dangerous person.”