Today, African servants teach medicine to Colonial America. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
We know Cotton Mather as a famous preacher in
Colonial Boston. We hear much less about his interest in science and
medicine. Yet he pressed the case for smallpox inoculation long before
19th-century science understood it.
Mather preached a sermon in 1712. He said:
... the Practice of ... preventing ... Smallpox [by] Inoculation has
[not] been introduced into our nation, where ... so many ... would
give Great Sums, to have their Lives insur'd from the dangers of this
dreadful Distemper. ... I cannot but move that it be WARILY proceeded
That year, a ship had reached Boston from Barbados. It had one case of
smallpox on board. Soon, an epidemic swept the city. It wasn't the
first. Years before, smallpox almost killed three of Mather's children.
He cared deeply about fighting it. But where did he learn about
He'd seen it first hand in his African servant. The man showed Mather
his smallpox scar and told him that you
... take the Juice of the Small Pox, and Cut the Skin and put in a
drop: then by 'nd by a little Sick, then a few Small Pox; and no body
dye of it; no body have Small Pox any more.
Boston ignored Mather until one physician began doing inoculations. That
unleashed a firestorm. One man asked if we should trust patients to the
"groundless Contrivances of Men" instead of the "all-wise
providence of God Almighty." Another threw a bomb through Mather's
window. It didn't go off, so Mather got to read the note on it. It said,
"... you Dog, Dam you, I'l inoculate you with this ..."
A 15-year-old printer named Ben Franklin was working on his older
brother's newpaper. They also took up the case against Mather. But
inoculation went on. After, all, when you look down the barrel at death,
you take some chances to preserve life.
By the time the epidemic had passed, smallpox had hit half the
population. It killed one in twelve. Doctors had inoculated only 300
people. The treatment killed one in fifty of them, but none caught the
disease again. The people who'd gambled on crude inoculation did twice
as well as the rest. They did four times better than the ones who'd been
So, by the time science okayed inoculation, New England had seen it
working for more than a century. In America, we were prepared to take up
this strange practice.
In 1721 we knew people who had used inoculation for a long, long
time. We learned it from African slaves -- from a far more advanced
people than we thought. We learned it from an old civilization that we
still know too little about, even today.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're
interested in the way inventive minds work.