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, March 03, 2008

Dr. Samuel Gelston Fights the Smallpox

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:

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.
In 1771, Dr. Gelston set up another smallpox inoculation hospital on Gravelly Island off Nantucket. Obed Macy’s 1835 History of Nantucket says:
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 in
danger of taking the disease on their return.
The locals asked the Massachusetts General Court to order Gelston to stop the inoculations, bought his property the next year, and tore down the buildings.

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.”


mc said...

Who was it that inoculated John Adams and his family, could it have been this man? Wasn't there a prisoner ship in the harbor with wretched conditions in which the prisoners would try to inoculated one another with their scabs?

I think I read somewhere that the Chinese used the smallpox scabs in crude inoculations ages ago

I love this blog, thanks for the great reading!!!

J. L. Bell said...

John Adams was inoculated by Dr. Nathaniel Perkins. At the same time, Dr. Joseph Warren inoculated Adams’s brother. They recovered at a relative’s house in Boston, as I recall, rather than in Dr. Gelston’s hospital out on Castle Island.

Abigail Adams and the children were inoculated shortly after the Revolution began, as another epidemic started to spread.

I don’t know the story about the prisoners, but in using scabs they would have been following a standard protocol at the time. Scabs from people with mild cases of smallpox (i.e., they had survived) were indeed used as the source of the virus for inoculating others.

Anonymous said...

Abigail and children where inoculated in Boston by Dr Bulfinch. A friend who does Abigail and research found this in her letters to John.

Grinding up scabs and blowing into the person's face (or directly into to nose) was from the far east, ie China. Turkey used simular to what you saw on the show and Africa also was practicing simular innouclation. By the time we get to the revolution what had been deep cuts and threads soaked in pox had changed to also scratches and pox rubbed in. (from an account in Philadelphia of a dr advising a father how to innoculate his child who the mother did not wish to do)

In the scene where they are inocculated they use what looks to be thick pus. The innoculate gathered would have been like honey in reality. What they show would have been to late in the stages to use.

The prisoners I never heard of but in Quebec the soliders tried to innoculate each other with scratches to avoid getting the real version before Washington started to innouclate the troops. If caught they could be punished if I recall correctly.

J. L. Bell said...

Dr. Thomas Bulfinch was the father of the architect Charles Bulfinch, by the way.

The main problem with the John Adams miniseries’s depiction of smallpox inoculation, I thought, was hauling a poxy patient around in an open wagon. That wouldn’t have been healthy for the patient, but it would have been even less healthy for the doctor despite his own immunity. The populace would have accused the inoculator of spreading the disease. Big towns put a lot of resources toward quarantining smallpox patients, and fear of the recently inoculated was what forced Dr. Gelston to close his hospital on Gravel Island.

Anonymous said...

I do agree whole heartly about bringing the poor soul all the way out there to be used to gather innoculant. There I believe they are taking liberties to show how it was done rather then show the dr with a vial of the stuff.

I am a historic interpeter and most of our research is about small pox and its innoculation.

Anonymous said...

There's a vintage map of Boston in an old pub not far from the federal buildings downtown; to be honest, I know it was a historic place near the Oyster House, but can't recall which one. (We popped in there for a drink after getting some good news from the immigration service, so other things were on our minds.)

At any rate, the map also lists the major fires and smallpox outbreaks in Boston. There were far, far more than I would have suspected.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve got a copy of that map (or one very like it) on my study wall. I bought it at the Bostonian Society’s gift shop. Indeed, it makes you wonder how there’s any city left here at all.

Carey Anthony said...

Is that map online anywhere??
FANTASTIC blog you've got here.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the compliment.

Click on the map for a larger version of the same image, courtesy of Rev. A. K. M. Adam’s blog. He says this map dates from the 1940s and was created by Austin Strong.