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The African roots of inoculation in America: Saving lives for three centuries

Sandra Lindsay, a critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, was among the first Americans to receive the coronavirus vaccine on Dec. 14. (Video: Reuters)

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.

Why this New York nurse got the country’s first coronavirus shot: ‘We were scared’

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.”

A Puritan minister incited fury by pushing inoculation against a smallpox epidemic

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.”

Privately, Mather wasn’t speaking as kindly of the man. In his diary that same year, he complained that Onesimus “proves wicked, and grows useless, Froward [ungovernable] and Immorigerous [rebellious],” according to the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard. Around this same time, Onesimus attempted to purchase his freedom, and Mather signed a document releasing him — so long as he returned money Mather claimed he had stolen and still agreed to perform some chores like shoveling snow and fetching water.

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.

He was one of the most respected people in Massachusetts, but just one physician responded to the wild idea. Zabadiel Boylston announced that he had successfully inoculated two enslaved Africans and his own son. “Area doctors and councilmen were horrified,” Kendi wrote.

William Douglass, the only man in the city with an actual medical degree, saw a conspiracy: The Africans were trying to kill their masters by tricking them into infecting themselves with smallpox. A local newspaper belonging to Benjamin Franklin’s overbearing older brother agreed with Douglass and spread word of the alleged conspiracy.

“There is not a Race of Men on Earth [filled with] more False Liars,” Douglass spat. Mather and Boylston were vilified for suggesting Africans might have valuable scientific knowledge; someone even threw a grenade into Mather’s home, according to the Hutchins Center.

The epidemic lasted nearly two years. Afterward, a survey found that of the people Mather and Boylston had persuaded to get inoculated, only 2 percent died. And the death rate among the population who hadn’t been inoculated and caught smallpox? Fourteen percent.

Onesimus married and had at least one child, a son who died young, but little else is known about him. The technique he showed Mather spread from Boston to the rest of the colonies, though it remained controversial; several states eventually banned it.

In 1777, as the Revolutionary War exploded across the young country, so did a new epidemic of smallpox. Gen. George Washington, an admirer of science and technology who had survived smallpox in his teens, had his entire army inoculated.

Two decades later, Edward Jenner invented the smallpox vaccine, a similar but safer inoculation technique using cowpox. Smallpox remains the only infectious disease humans have successfully eradicated from the Earth.

Read more Retropolis:

A Puritan minister incited fury by pushing inoculation against a smallpox epidemic

‘A fearsome decision’: Abigail Adams had her children inoculated against smallpox

‘The 1918 flu is still with us’: The deadliest pandemic ever is still causing problems today

History’s deadliest pandemics, from ancient Rome to modern America