The Massachusetts colonists were terrified by the news. Smallpox had arrived in Boston and was fast spreading. The first victims, Caribbean cruise ship passengers, were imprisoned in a house marked solely by a crimson banner reading “God have compassion on this house.” Hundreds of people of the bustling colonial town were fleeing for their lives. Many people were afraid of what would happen if they became infected with the fatal illness.
They had every right to be afraid. The virus was exceedingly contagious, and massive epidemics erupted as a result. Fever, tiredness, and a crusty rash were all symptoms of smallpox, which could leave disfiguring scars on the body. The virus killed its victims in up to 30% of cases.
The smallpox outbreak of 1721, on the other hand, was unlike any other. Hundreds of people died as the disease spread throughout the city. This was before contemporary medical therapy and a comprehensive grasp of the infectious disease. However, Onesimus, an enslaved man, presented a possible solution to keep people from getting sick. A brave doctor and an outspoken clergyman, intrigued by Onesimus’ notion, conducted a risky experiment to try to eradicate the deadly smallpox.
Smallpox was one of the worst diseases of the time. “Few diseases were more ubiquitous or devastating at this time,” historian Susan Pryor writes.
The impacts of smallpox were seen not just among European colonialists, but also among the Native Americans to whom the disease was introduced. Smallpox wiped out Native American tribes. They were also unable to combat the illness since they lacked immunity. The mortality toll of native Americans due to smallpox has been blamed on colonialists as a deliberate attempt to wipe them out.
Slave ships also brought the Smallpox virus to town. It was sometimes spread by African slaves who were crammed into filthy quarters. Infected members of the group spread the disease to one another, then to colonialists and locals at their destinations. Massachusetts, which was at the time a hotbed of the early slave trade in America, was one of those destinations. The first slaves arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, and by 1700, the colony had roughly 1,000 slaves, most of whom lived in Boston.
Cotton Mather, a notable Puritan clergyman, purchased an enslaved West African man in 1706. Cotton Mather named the slave Onesimus, after a Biblical slave named Onesimus, which signified “helpful.” Slave owners had a religious duty to convert and educate their slaves, according to Mather, who was a key role in the Salem Witch Trials. But, like other white men of his day, he despised Africans’ “Devilish ceremonies” as he called them, and was concerned that the slaves might openly revolt.
Cotton Mather had little faith in Onesimus, his slave. He wrote about needing to keep a close eye on him because of what he perceived to be his “thievish” behavior. In his diary, he also described him as a “wicked” and “useless” slave. But in 1716, all that animosity toward Onesimus washed away when he told Cotton what he actually believed: that he knew how to prevent smallpox.
Cotton Mather later wrote that Onesimus, who “is a reasonably clever person,” told him he had smallpox—and then didn’t. “I had had an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would eternally guard him from it…and whomever had the bravery to employ it was forever free of the fear of contagion,” Onesimus told Cotton.
Onesimus was referring to a procedure in which pus from an infected individual was rubbed into an open wound on a non-infected person’s arm. The person who underwent the surgery was automatically immunized against smallpox after the infectious pus was put into the body. This wasn’t a vaccine, which entails exposing a person to a less hazardous virus in order to induce immunity. However, it elicited an immune response in the recipient and, for the most part, protected them from disease.
Cotton Mather was enthralled by Onesimus’s remedy’s potency. He quickly corroborated Onesimus’ testimony with that of other African slaves, as well as learning that the procedure was also practiced in Turkey and China. He subsequently became an evangelist for inoculation, also known as variolation, and spread the word throughout Massachusetts and other parts of the country in the hopes of preventing the deadly smallpox.
Cotton Mather, on the other hand, had underestimated how unpopular the therapy would be. Other white colonists were hesitant to undertake a medical procedure invented by or for black people because of the same discrimination that drove him to doubt his servant. Cotton Mather was “vilified,” according to historian Ted Widmer of WGBH. “A local newspaper, The New England Courant, mocked him,” he claimed. With an angry note, an explosive device was thrown through his windows. The rage had an obnoxious racist overtone.”
Religion also played a role in colonialists’ failure to treat individuals. Other preachers claimed that exposing God’s creatures to such dangerous diseases was against his will.
In 1721, however, Mather and Zabdiel Boylston were given the opportunity to put inoculation to the test. Bolyston was the sole doctor in Boston who believed in the method.
A smallpox epidemic spread from a ship to Boston’s population that year, infecting roughly half of the city’s population. Boylston acted quickly, immunizing his son and slaves against the smallpox virus. Then he started inoculating additional consenting Boston residents. Only six people died out of the 242 he vaccinated, or one in every 40. One out of every seven people who refused the treatment died.
In Boston, the smallpox pandemic claimed the lives of 844 people. This amounted to more than 14% of the city’s population. However, the management and outcomes of that outbreak gave hope for future epidemics. It also aided in the development of virus vaccinations. Edward Jenner developed a vaccine that used cowpox to induce smallpox protection in 1796. Surprisingly, it was successful. Smallpox immunization was eventually made mandatory in Massachusetts.
Was Onesimus alive to witness Cotton Mather’s success with the technique he taught him? History, on the other hand, isn’t so sure about that. Nothing is known about his subsequent life save that he bought his release from Cotton Mather in part. He did so by giving Mather money to buy another slave.
Historians agree that the knowledge he passed on saved hundreds of lives and eventually contributed to the eradication of smallpox.
Smallpox was proclaimed completely eradicated from the world by the World Health Organization in 1980, thanks to widespread vaccination. It is still the only contagious disease that has been completely eradicated from the planet’s surface.
The historical facts that Africans originated medicine and were exposed to science through their indigenous cultures and religions speak to Onesimus’ instincts and knowledge of medicine.
The medical achievements of persons like Onesimus must be recognized by Americans and the rest of the world, however, it is understandable that his name has been brushed under the rug, with credit given to others who learned from him.
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