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Mather and Boylston Risked Much to Fight Smallpox




I enjoyed reading the book reviewed below. From the title, and from reviews, I had the impression that it would mostly be about the smallpox epidemic and the innoculation conflict. I was surprised that of equal, or greater, importance in the book is the role of James Franklin's newspaper in laying the intellectual groundwork for the American Revolution. I learned from that part of the book too, but some might feel misled from the title about what the book was mainly about. (I think "fever" in the title is intended as a double entendre, referring both to a fever from smallpox, and a fever from the ideas of liberty.)



(p. A11) Inoculation was proposed by Cotton Mather, a figure much diminished in the 30 years since Salem. He had suffered a terrible sequence of tragedies, losing his wife and 10 of his children to accidents and epidemic disease. He had also been marginalized within the religious community by quarrels and scandals. But he had become an assiduous student of science, corresponding with the Royal Society in London and learning from its "Transactions" that inoculation against smallpox had long been practiced in Constantinople. Mr. Coss shows how Mather's investigations led him to consult a source closer to home. His slave Onesimus, when asked whether he had ever had smallpox, replied "both Yes, and No": He had been inoculated as a child in Africa, receiving a mild infection and subsequent immunity.

Inoculation was commonplace across swaths of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Mr. Coss explains, but this inclined the doctors of Enlightenment-era Europe to regard it as a primitive superstition. Such was the view of William Douglass, the only man in Boston with the letters "M.D." after his name, who was convinced that "infusing such malignant filth" in a healthy subject was lethal folly. The only person Mather could persuade to perform the operation was a surgeon, Zabdiel Boylston, whose frontier upbringing made him sympathetic to native medicine and who was already pockmarked from a near-fatal case of the disease.

"Given that attempting inoculation constituted an almost complete leap of faith for Boylston," Mr. Coss writes, "he spent surprisingly little time agonizing over it." He knew personally just how savage the toll could be. On June 26, 1721, just as the epidemic began to rage in earnest, Boyston filled a quill with the fluid from an infected blister and scratched it into the skin of two family slaves and his own young son.

News of the experiment was greeted with public fury and terror that it would spread the contagion. A town-hall meeting was convened, at Dr. Douglass's instigation, at which inoculation was condemned and banned. Mather's house was firebombed with an incendiary device to which a note was attached: "I will inoculate you with this."



For the full review, see:

MIKE JAY. "'BOOKSHELF; An Ounce of Prevention; When Cotton Mather advocated inoculation during a smallpox outbreak, young Benjamin Franklin helped foment outrage against him." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., March 3, 2016): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 2, 2016, and has the title "'BOOKSHELF; When Ben Franklin Was Against Vaccines; When Cotton Mather advocated inoculation during a smallpox outbreak, young Benjamin Franklin helped foment outrage against him.")


The book under review, is:

Coss, Stephen. The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.






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