The African Roots of Inoculation in America: Saving Lives for Three CenturiesHistorians in the News
tags: public health, smallpox, medical history
The image was powerful: two Black women, both medical professionals, on either end of a syringe Monday, as one administered to the other one of the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine available to the American public.
It was powerful because it showed who is on front lines fighting the pandemic, and because many Black Americans have a justified suspicion of the medical community. Several decades ago, the government experimented on Black men without their knowledge in the Tuskegee study, and the “father of gynecology,” J. Marion Sims, performed dozens of operations without anesthesia on enslaved Black women.
But go back three centuries, and one finds this: The concept of inoculation arrived in America from Africa. In fact, in the 1700s, Africans taught their technique for protecting themselves against smallpox to the very European settlers who enslaved them.
It’s a once-hidden history recounted most recently by historian Ibram X. Kendi in “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” and journalist Isabel Wilkerson in “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”
You may remember from high school history the name Cotton Mather. He was an important Puritan minister and intellectual of his day, and the son of Increase Mather, who founded Harvard College. Cotton Mather was also a enslaver. At the time, about 1,000 people of African descent lived in the Massachusetts colony; many were indentured servants, but increasingly, they were enslaved for life.
In 1706, Mather’s congregation gave him as a gift an enslaved African he called Onesimus (the man’s original name is unknown). As was a “standard question” of the day, Mather asked Onesimus if he had had smallpox yet, according to Kendi.
“Yes and no,” Onesimus replied.
He explained to Mather that when he was a child in Africa, the pus of a smallpox victim had been scraped into his arm with a thorn — he still had the scar — to give him a mild case of the disease; now he was forever immune. It was a common practice where he came from and had been for hundreds of years, he told Mather.
Years later and after hearing about a similar practice in Turkey, Mather became fascinated and surveyed the Africans in Boston, who told him all their inoculation stories. In 1716, he wrote to the Royal Society of London about how he had heard of the method “from my Negro-man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow.”
Onesimus faded from the public record once he purchased his freedom, but the information he had given Mather proved useful five years later when a smallpox epidemic struck Boston. Mather wrote an “Address to the Physicians of Boston” in June 1721, urging them to try the inoculation technique.
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