When Cotton Mather Fought The Smallpox Essay

, Research Paper

In the spring of 1721, Boston became alarmed at the news of smallpox in their town. In April a Negro from a Caribbean ship brought the disease to Boston, and was immediately quarantined. In the coming months more than half the community’s ten thousand residents, approximately eight hundred, fell ill. When the town of Boston realized that smallpox had appeared again, the people became terror-stricken. In Boston, survival or death it was thought depended on one’s chance or divine intervention according to one’s religious point of view. Reverend Cotton Mather, attempted inoculation, a practice never used in the New World. London reported successful use of inoculation in Turkey. Cotton Mather called for a physician’s town meeting. Dr. William Douglas, the town’s only full-fledged medical graduate was outraged, because the inoculation involved injecting pus from the blisters of smallpox sufferer into the skin of a healthy person. He was also upset that a clergyman would try to instruct the medical field. It seemed that Douglas had persuaded the medical community against the use of inoculation. Mather’s efforts lead to Doctor, Zabdiel Boylston inoculating his younger son and two of his slaves and consequently a few days later a number of others underwent the treatment. Douglas fiercely opposed Mather’s sponsoring of the inoculation. There were no medical arguments that infecting a healthy person would cause smallpox to be less severe, or that it would eliminate the further spread of the disease. The news of Boylston’s inoculations went to the press, he assured the reader that if he were inoculated he would not fear pockmarks and scars on his face or ever have smallpox again. In July, Boylston was called to a meeting, where physicians, opposed the practice of inoculation. Boylston was ordered to stop performing inoculations. The town questioned the right of inoculation, as a “judgement of God,” sent to punish and humble the people for their sins? Was being inoculated not like “taking God’s Work out of His Hand”? (Page 42) Cotton Mather, his father and four others became known as the “Inoculation Ministers”. In August the New-England Courant, printed for the first time, attacking the “Inoculation Ministers.” While the epidemic continued, Boylston and Mather were molested and insulted on the streets of Boston. Boston declared that Boylston ought to be tried for murderer if any of his inoculated patients died. The epidemic continued to take its toll on the New England colonies, and the anger toward Boylston and Mather turned into rage. In England during the outbreak of 1721, inoculation found a supporter. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was so convinced of inoculation’s value she wanted to bring the useful invention to England. After smallpox departed, the ratios proved that smallpox acquired by inoculation was apparently often less severe and mortality lessened, than when acquired “in the common way.” Even Douglas finally acknowledged the good of inoculation, which eventually led the way to Jenner’s discovery of vaccination. Of course, inoculation did not “prevent” the disease; it just transmitted the virus in a weakened form. In the end, the most serious drawbacks of inoculation were its unexpected behavior and clear dangerousness; yet, inoculation died out slowly.


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