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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Monday, July 05, 2021

“I could almost wish that an inoculating Hospital was opened, in every Town”

In the Washington Post, Prof. Andrew Wehrman wrote about Massachusetts and Boston’s official response to the threat of smallpox in the summer of 1776:
Abigail Adams…learned of the Continental Army’s failed invasion of Canada. Smallpox had broken out among the soldiers, dooming the campaign. Returning soldiers threatened to bring the disease back with them. Exasperated, John wrote to Abigail: “The Small Pox! The Small Pox! What shall we do with it?” He answered his own question by remarking, “I could almost wish that an inoculating Hospital was opened, in every Town in New England.”

While John Adams and 55 other men in Philadelphia debated the final wording of the Declaration of Independence, on July 3, 1776, the people of Boston declared their independence from smallpox. Fearing further outbreaks, the Massachusetts legislature voted to once again shut down the entire city for a general inoculation.

The people of Boston cheered the news. Ezekiel Price, a local businessman and court official, declared on July 4: “Liberty given for to inoculate for the small-pox; many begin upon it this afternoon.”

Abigail Adams took her four children to her uncle’s house to inoculate with the families of her two sisters. Guardhouses were built to warn anyone entering the city of the presence of smallpox and to prevent anyone from leaving the city during the general inoculation without a certificate from a doctor.

On July 18, 1776, Col. Thomas Crafts read the Declaration of Independence for the first time to the people of Boston from the balcony of the State House. Abigail Adams joined the “multitude into King Street to hear the proclamation.” The assembled crowd was composed of recently inoculated Bostonians and those with previous immunity who had stayed behind to take care of the rest. . . .

Boston’s “freedom summer” ended on Sept. 18, 1776, when the city ordered the guardhouses closed and the city to reopen for business. Although statistics were not immediately published, 20 years later, Thomas Pemberton, a businessman and member of the newly founded Massachusetts Historical Society, compiled the numbers. In the summer of 1776, Boston saw 29 deaths from 304 cases of natural smallpox. By contrast, only 28 deaths were reported with 4,988 Bostonians inoculated. Ninety percent of Boston’s nonimmune population was inoculated, saving hundreds of lives.
The implications for how our population should respond today are obvious. Some choose to reject them.

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