The African Roots of Vaccination in America

August 14, 2021

I was today years old when I learned this, thanks to several articles in The Washington Post.

Washington Post:

Around 3 a.m. one November morning in 1721, a bomb crashed through the window of Cotton Mather’s Boston home. It had been hurled with such force that the fuse fell off, and it failed to detonate. Attached to the explosive was a warning note: “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you: I’ll inoculate you with this; with a Pox to you.’’

The would-be bomber was not angry over politics, or love, or a business deal gone wrong, but rather over Mather’s attempts to save Boston residents from one of the deadliest threats of the era: smallpox. The same Puritan minister who played a role in fueling the execution of 14 women and six men during the Salem witch trials was now calling for the use of an experimental new way to prevent disease. Mather supported inoculation, a precursor to vaccination.

Nearly 300 years later, doctors are working to develop a vaccine for coronavirus — an infection far less lethal than smallpox — as people around the world clamor for treatment.

In the 18th century, however, Boston’s colonists met Mather’s inoculation proposal with a terror that bordered on hysteria. They didn’t understand how inoculation worked, and the notion of choosing to infect yourself with a deadly disease struck them — perhaps understandably — as outrageous. Fear of science, suspicion of the ruling elite, and a belief that medicine might meddle with God’s will — these ideas guided the angry mobs in Boston in 1721 and linger today in some form in anti-vaccine movements.

Ironically, today —

Washington Post:

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 (late 1600s–1700s[1]) was an African man who was instrumental in the mitigation of the impact of a smallpox outbreak in Boston, Massachusetts. His birth name is unknown. He was enslaved and, in 1706, was given to the New England Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who renamed him. Onesimus introduced Mather to the principle and procedure of inoculation to prevent the disease, which laid the foundation for the development of vaccines.[2] After a smallpox outbreak began in Boston in 1721, Mather used this knowledge to advocate for inoculation in the population, a practice that eventually spread to other colonies. In a 2016 Boston magazine survey, Onesimus was declared one of the “Best Bostonians of All Time”.

More here at Quartz.

One Response to “The African Roots of Vaccination in America”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    Glad you’ve discovered the book “Stamped from the Beginning”. It is one of the most informative (and mind blowing) books I have ever read. A long and somewhat tough read—-I’m just past halfway through it—-it is full of the history that makes Critical Race Theory such an important discussion topic today

    In addition to the inoculation origins tidbit, he exposes the origins of the word “slave”. Back in the 1300-1400’s, western Europeans were the biggest enslavers, and most of those they enslaved were white people from Eastern Europe—“slavs”, which became “slave” long before any black people were involved.

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