Anti-Vaxxers Are A Very Old Problem

Kiona Smith, June 30, 2019, Forbes

The American anti-vaccine movement is nothing new; it started in 1721, when people took to the streets of Boston to try and stop physician Zabdiel Boylston from inoculating people against smallpox.

Imagine a major U.S. city with half its population too sick to get out of bed, desperately in need of medical care (which would still fail to save at least one out of every seven patients). Those who are well struggle to tend the sick and dying, praying they won’t be next themselves. Work, commerce, and the basic infrastructure that keeps a city running — police, utilities, schools, sanitation — all grind to a stuttering halt. Welcome to Boston in the summer of 1721: a teeming colonial port city in the grip of the dreaded smallpox.

The city had tried to keep the disease out. Ships arriving with sick crew members had to sit in quarantine at an island off the coast until the illness had run its course. But on April 22, 1721, infected sailors aboard the HMS Seahorse, newly arrived from the West Indies, somehow slipped through the cracks. By the peak of the epidemic, nearly 5,900 of Boston’s 11,000 residents were sick, and about 844 of them — one patient out of every seven — died.

Puritan minister Cotton Mather had been waiting for a moment like this; he’d even written to a friend about it in 1716, swearing that if a smallpox epidemic came to Boston, he’d be ready. Years before, his congregation had given him an appalling gift: a man brought from west Africa as a slave. The man’s real name is lost to history, but Mather decided to call him Onesimus, after a slave belonging to St. Paul in the Bible — so this man, captured and carried far from his home as a slave, also spent the rest of his life named after a character in the holy text of a religion that wasn’t his own, and which he never chose to follow.

Onesimus (we’re left with no other name to call him) seems to have been an intelligent, resourceful, and determined man. He eventually bought his freedom from Mather (although the minister stipulated that Onesimus still had to come do chores whenever he asked, which raises questions about whether Cotton Mather ever owned a dictionary). And, in the early 1700s, he provided the information that saved a few hundred Bostonians from smallpox.


PHOTO CREDIT: Wikimedia – The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!—vide. the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society

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