J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dr. James Latham’s Inoculation Franchise

Yesterday’s posting mentioned Dr. James Latham, a smallpox inoculator working in Salem in 1773-74. He came to town claiming to have a superior method for treating the disease. That probably sounded good to the town leaders at first, but when the people of Essex County turned against those newfangled and exclusive inoculation hospitals, Latham’s secrecy became a liability.

The best source on this doctor is an article by Barbara Tunis called “Dr. James Latham (c. 1734-1799): Pioneer Inoculator in Canada,” published in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History in 1984. It draws on a 1903 profile in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal of another physician who worked with Latham and left papers documenting their business relationship.

Tunis writes that Latham enters the historical record as a surgeon’s mate in His Majesty’s 8th Regiment of Foot in 1756, succeeding to the rank of surgeon in 1767. That regiment arrived in Québec in July 1768, and on 15 September Latham advertised his services in inoculating people against the smallpox. This is apparently the first documented example of inoculation in Canada. (That’s a bigger deal in the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History than elsewhere.)

Latham seems to have found enough business to retire from the army, perhaps on half-pay. The next year he moved to Montreal to inoculate people there, and in 1770 to New York. By 1773 Dr. Latham was married with children, living on a large farm in Livingston Manor.

The doctor advertised himself as following the “Suttonian” method of treatment—indeed, he declared, he had the exclusive license to offer that treatment in North America north of Philadelphia. He in turn authorized associates in seven towns and sold them the “Suttonian” medicines, which they had to promise not to try to replicate. They paid him half of all they earned up to £300 and a third above that. The contract started like this:

Whereas, William Sutton of Kensington Lane, in the County of Surrey, in England, hath found out and discovered a method or art of inoculation for the smallpox, and hath also discovered and prepared certain medicines, preparatory and effectual in the cure of that distemper, and, whereas the said William Sutton, in order to extend the benefit of this method to America, did, upon certain conditions, take James Latham into partnership for the carrying on and practising of this said method, art or mystery, and inoculation with the medicines aforesaid in certain districts in America, with power to depute under him other persons within said districts under certain terms and conditions,…
In sum, Dr. Latham set up a smallpox-inoculation franchise.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, Latham apparently tried to remain neutral, at least until he saw which way the fight was going. He resigned his army ties by August 1775, but in the following years Patriots suspected him of trying to smuggle flour to the British army and then of trying to cross enemy lines. In May 1783, with the war winding down, Latham wrote to Gen. Sir Guy Carleton in New York City, professing his continued loyalty to the Crown. Nonetheless, he remained at Livingston Manor with his family.

For a few months in 1786 Dr. Latham went back to Québec to inoculate people, and then in March 1790 he moved and officially became surgeon for the army garrison in Kingston, Ontario (well, it’s now Ontario). Smallpox treatment continued to be a big part of his practice. He died in Kingston on 28 Jan 1799, aged about sixty-five.

(The painting of a doctor inoculating a family above appears on a Scienceblogs posting by PalMD about eighteenth-century scientific wariness of the procedure.)

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