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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Friday, September 15, 2023

“Argumentive dialogue concerning inoculation”

The Telltale essays by Harvard College students in Ebenezer Turell’s notebook come to a stop on 1 Nov 1721.

In the preceding month, 411 people in Boston had died of smallpox. The epidemic had been spreading and killing since April.

People at Harvard were contracting the disease, including the maid of undergraduate Samuel Mather (1706–1785).

Samuel’s father, the Rev. Cotton Mather, had heard about inoculation against smallpox from his enslaved servant Onesimus and then from reading accounts of the procedure in Turkey. He urged Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to try this approach infecting people with a mild case of the disease in hopes of immunizing them for life.

In June 1721, Boylston inoculated his young son, an enslaved man, and that man’s son. When they didn’t die, he and Mather went public. Boston’s selectmen told him to stop. Boylston didn’t, inoculating young Samuel Mather among others.

Dr. William Douglass opposed inoculation with his pen and his authority as a Scottish-educated physician. The Rev. Benjamin Colman (shown above) supported Boylston and Mather with his Narrative of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-pox in New England. Other doctors and ministers divided on the question.

In that atmosphere, around the start of November Ebenezer Turell opened his Telltale notebook from the other end and wrote out a fourteen-page “Argumentive dialogue concerning inoculation between Dr. Hurry and Mr. Waitfort.” Dr. Hurry was, of course, eager for the new procedure, and Mr. Waitfort was still hanging back.

The dialogue consisted of exchanges like this one:
W[aitfort:…] He that bring sickness upon himself Voluntarily Breaks one of the divine Commandment (the 6th)…

H[urry:] I never heard yt the Bringing Sickness upon our selves was a Breach of ye Divine Law Absolutly for by vomitting Purging letting of Blood &c We make our selves sick and that voluntarily too
In the end Dr. Hurry prevailed. The essay concluded with this verse:
Theres none but Cowards fear ye Launce,
Heroes receive ye Wound
With rapturous joy they Skip & Dance,
While others hugg ye Ground.
According to Dr. Boylston’s published account, on 23 November he “inoculated Mr. Ebenezer Pemberton, and Mr. John Lowel, each about 18.” Both those young men were in Turell’s college class and in his circle. (Indeed, I suspect this John Lowell was the student he started the Telltale with.)

The next day, he administered the procedure to a Harvard professor, a tutor, and seven students, including “Mr. Ebenezer Turil.”

Turell went back into his notebook and added that his “Argumentive dialogue” was “Compos’d about three weeks before I was inoculated.”

TOMORROW: Ebenezer Turell’s Society.

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