Inoculation was introduced to America by a slave.
Few details are known about the birth of Onesimus, but it is assumed he was born in Africa in the late seventeenth century before eventually landing in Boston. One of a thousand people of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony, Onesimus was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather from his congregation in 1706.
To early New Englanders, disease was an inseparable part of the New England story from the beginning. The most fearsome of all was smallpox. No one really knew where the disease came from. Was it carried by bad air, or sent as a form of divine retribution for personal failings? Boston had plenty to fear on both counts—one observer described the town at low tide as “a very stinking puddle.” Medical knowledge was still primitive; a learned scientist, John Winthrop Jr., kept what he thought was a unicorn horn in his cabinet. For most, the first line of defense was the prayer book. The disease that wiped out so many Native Americans at the time of European settlement, and that also killed large numbers of the English.
It arrived with the Great Migration of the 1630s, aboard the very ships that brought so many families to New England. It returned in 1666, and again in 1678, when an epidemic killed 340 Bostonians. A young Cotton Mather wrote, “Boston burying-places never filled so fast.” With time, local leaders began to develop crude public health policies—burying the dead quickly, flying red flags over houses affected, and requiring ships with sick sailors to stop at Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor. But as Bostonians knew, the next epidemic was always just over the horizon. In 1721, on April 22, the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies with smallpox on board, and despite precautions, a full-blown epidemic started, infecting roughly half of Boston’s 11,000 residents. But Boston’s approach to public health changed that year, thanks to an experimental strategy for inoculating citizens with small traces of the disease.
This time, however, the city was better prepared, thanks to several unlikely heroes. Cotton Mather is not always the easiest figure to admire. The scion of a dynasty of ministers, he fought a lengthy rear-guard action against time, trying to stanch the ebbing of power among the city’s religious authorities. But he was surprisingly modern in some ways, and paid attention to the new forms of knowledge coming in on those ships. Another contradiction lay in his racial attitudes—his writings suggest that, more than most of his contemporaries, he admired Africans, but he also accepted slavery, and had raised no objections when his congregation presented him with a young slave in 1706. He named him Onesimus, after a slave belonging to St. Paul.
Onesimus told Mather about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune. Considered extremely dangerous at the time, Cotton Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated. Opposed politically, religiously and medically in the United States and abroad, public reaction to the experiment put Mather and Boylston’s lives in danger despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox.
Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States.
Onesimus was later freed, after helping to purchase another slave to replace him. He died in Boston in 1717.
For more information you can read Harvard Hutchinson Center Article