Cotton Mather - Biography - Early New England

Early New England

Smallpox was a serious threat in colonial America, most devastating to Native Americans, but also to Anglo-American settlers. New England suffered smallpox epidemics in 1677, 1689–90, and 1702. It was highly contagious, and mortality could reach as high as 30 percent or more.

Boston had been plagued by smallpox outbreaks in 1690 and 1702. During this era, public authorities in Massachusetts dealt with the threat primarily by means of quarantine. Incoming ships were quarantined in Boston harbor, and any smallpox patients in town were held under guard or in a "pesthouse."

In 1706 a slave, Onesimus, explained to Cotton Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. Mather was fascinated by the idea. By July 1716, Mather had read an endorsement of inoculation by Dr. Emanuel Timonius of Constantinople in the Philosophical Transactions. Mather then declared, in a letter to Dr. John Woodward of Gresham College in London, that he planned to press Boston's doctors to adopt the practice of inoculation should smallpox reach the colony again.

By 1721, a whole generation of young Bostonians was vulnerable and memories of the last epidemic's horrors had by and large disappeared. On April 22 of that year, the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies carrying smallpox on board. Despite attempts to protect the town through quarantine, eight known cases of smallpox appeared in Boston by May 27, and by mid-June, the disease was spreading at an alarming rate. As a new wave of smallpox hit the area and continued to spread, many residents fled to outlying rural settlements. The combination of exodus, quarantine, and outside traders' fears disrupted business in the capital of the Bay Colony for weeks. Guards were stationed at the House of Representatives to keep Bostonians from entering without special permission. The death toll reached 101 in September, and the Selectmen, powerless to stop it, "severely limited the length of time funeral bells could toll." As one response, legislators delegated a thousand pounds from the treasury to help the people who, under these conditions, could no longer support their families.

On June 6, 1721, Mather sent an abstract of reports on inoculation by Timonius and Jacobus Pylarinus to local physicians, urging them to consult about the matter. He received no response. Next, Mather pleaded his case to Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, who tried the procedure on his only son and two slaves—one grown and one a boy. All recovered in about a week. Boylston inoculated seven more people by mid-July.

The epidemic peaked in October 1721, with 411 deaths; by February 26, 1722, Boston was, once again, free of smallpox. The total number of cases since April 1721 came to 5,889, with 844 deaths—more than three-quarters of all the deaths in Boston during 1721. Meanwhile, Dr. Boylston had inoculated 242 people, with only six resulting in death.

Read more about this topic:  Cotton Mather, Biography

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