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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Saturday, October 01, 2011

“Several of the founding fathers were champions of inoculation”

In The Nation, Lindsay Beyerstein took on Rep. Michele Bachmann’s recent incendiary comments about vaccinations from a historical perspective:
As a Tea Party conservative, Bachmann styles herself as defender of original vision of the founding fathers for America. Ironically, several of the founding fathers were champions of inoculation against infectious disease. Some even played key roles in ushering in the vaccine age.

If it hadn’t been for mandatory smallpox inoculation, the Republic might never have survived. General George Washington ordered the Continental Army inoculated against smallpox in 1777, the first large scale inoculation of an army in history. Washington was supported in this effort by Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and the chair of the Continental Congress’ Medical Department.

Inoculation was a precursor to vaccination which induced a milder case of smallpox by scratching the skin and rubbing in pus from a smallpox lesion. Cleric and amateur scientist Cotton Mather provided a dramatic proof of concept for inoculation when he inoculated 287 people during a smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1721. Only six of the inoculated individuals died, a much lower death rate than for natural smallpox. Mather gets credit for introducing smallpox inoculation to North America, but he learned about it from Onesimus, a slave who had undergone inoculation in Africa.

Despite the success of his experiment, Mather was widely vilified for mocking the will of God. At the time, many believed that smallpox was a divine punishment for sins and that trying to evade the consequences of sinning by getting inoculated was a sin in itself. That argument sounds ridiculous to modern ears, but that same logic still prevails in some quarters when discussing sexually transmitted diseases.

Someone threw a small bomb through Mather’s window with a note that said, roughly, “Inoculate this, Mather.”
The article goes on to name-check Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Harvard professor Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse.

Not mentioned in the article is how in 1721 James Franklin published essays criticizing Mather (shown above) and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston for their inoculation campaign in his New England Courant newspaper and in pamphlets. Among the apprentices who helped to create those publications was the printer’s little brother Benjamin.

Eventually, however, Benjamin Franklin accepted the scientific evidence for the value of smallpox inoculation, particularly after his young son died of the disease in 1736. Two decades later, Franklin and Dr. William Heberden of London published a pamphlet on inoculation in England and America. Franklin had a very important quality for a political leader, or anyone else: the willingness to change one’s mind after seeing solid evidence that undermines one’s initial beliefs.


Michele said...

I love your blog. Please keep up what you are so beautifully doing. My children are learning so much through your posts. In addition to the time we spend at the library and watching such fab movies like John Adams (in fact, this post brought to mind that scene when Abigail has her children immunized) it is such a pleasure to get more information from such an engaging source.

Our family thanks you.


sbh said...

Benjamin Franklin on inoculation:

"In 1736 I lost one of my Sons, a fine Boy of 4 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 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." [Autobiography pt 3]

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Michele. I wrote about the John Adams scene of inoculation here.

Thanks for the quotation, sbh!