Schiller Institute on YouTube Schiller Institute on Facebook RSS

Home >

This Week in History
March 4 - 10, 1679:
Birthday of Dr. Zabdiel Boylston

Mentor of Benjamin Franklin,
Brought Smallpox Inoculation to America

March 2012

Cotton Mather
Cotton Mather.

Born on March 9, 1679, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston of Brookline, Mass. well deserves to be remembered for two very important missions that he accomplished during the 1720s. The first dealt with smallpox, the dreaded scourge that subjected its victims to a horrible death, and left its survivors scarred for life. The American colonies had been prey to wave after wave of the deadly disease, and on April 15, 1721 a ship from the Tortugas brought another outbreak to the town of Boston.

This outbreak, however, would be different. On June 6, the Rev. Cotton Mather, the leader of the republican networks in New England and a talented scientist, circulated an "Address to the Physicians of Boston," asking them to inoculate against smallpox. Mather had first heard of the practice of inoculation from a slave named Onesimus, who told him it was done by the Guramantese tribes in Africa. Then, in 1719, Mather read two papers published by the British Royal Society which described the method of smallpox inoculation used in Constantinople. Mather prepared an abstract of these papers for Boston's doctors which he added to his "Address."

When this plea did not produce any results, Mather wrote a letter on June 24 to Dr. Boylston, asking him to inoculate, saying that "If upon mature deliberation, you should think it advisable to be proceeded in, it may save many lives that we set a great value on." Boylston, who had survived the disease in 1702, deliberated only two days before he began inoculating members of his family and then expanded his efforts to others who wanted to undergo the procedure.

But this life-saving method was totally new to America and did involve a small element of risk. The political opposition to Cotton Mather and his republican networks was centered in a group of merchants who held monopolies from the British Crown on basic commodities such as grain. This group, which had been fleecing the public with high prices, now showed their "compassion" for the common man by coming out violently against the practice of inoculation.

These supporters of the degenerate Robert Walpole administration in Britain played on the population's fears and succeeded in organizing an anti-science mob to attack the homes of both Mather and Boylston. They also recruited "experts" to their cause, including William Douglass, a Scottish doctor who was to attack inoculation for the next 30 years, claiming that it helped to spread the disease.

Dr. Boylston was summoned three times by the selectmen of Boston, most of whom were under the thumb of the monopolists, to account for his actions. As the epidemic spread, more and more people requested to be inoculated. Cotton Mather had been working through his civic associations in order to encourage people to protect themselves against smallpox. By summer, the disease had reached epidemic proportions, eventually affecting half the population of Boston.

Finally, with the newspapers owned by the monopolists spewing out constant slanders, a grenade was thrown through Cotton Mather's bedroom window on Nov. 13. Mather's cousin was in the room recovering from inoculation, but fortunately the bomb's fuse was knocked off by hitting the window casement so there was no explosion.

To counter the fear-mongering pushed by the anti-science pamphleteers, Boylston and Mather collaborated on a series of eight letters and pamphlets, setting out the scientific basis of inoculation for the citizens of Boston and surrounding areas. Despite the pressure of constant harassment, Dr. Boylston kept careful records of his inoculations and his patients' reactions, tabulating the results. By the end of February 1722, he had inoculated 241 people, among whom, only six died, and of these at least four had contracted smallpox before they were inoculated.

While the epidemic still raged, Mather, with the aid of Dr. Boylston's records, sent a report of the inoculations to the British Royal Society, of which he was a member. Mather also wrote letters about Boylston's inoculations to other members of the Society, and his letter, titled "An Account of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox, in Boston in New England," was published anonymously in London in 1722.

But the opposition of the anti-innoculators and their Walpolean backers had not abated. At the beginning of January 1722, their main propaganda organ, the New England Courant, claimed that Mather's support for inoculation must be the work of the Devil. On Jan. 15, Mather attended a meeting of Boston ministers and told them that his ability to do good for the citizens of New England was being severely restricted. From now on, he said, he had projects to do good in more distant places and among some of his own remnant of a flock, but as for New England in general, others would have to take the lead.

"I have done treating you with any more of my Proposals," said Mather. "If they should be never so good, yet if they be known to be mine, that is enough to bespeak a Blast upon them. Do YOU propose as many good Things as you please, and I will second them, and assist them and fall in with them, to the best of my Capacity." There was one Mather project that combined distant places and someone from his own flock, and it was about to begin.

Benjamin Franklin's father Josiah was one of the leaders of Mather's congregation, and members of the Franklin family had married relations of the Mathers. At this time, Benjamin was 16 years old and apprenticed to his older brother James, a printer. James had joined the anti-innoculation faction, whether from his own motives or as a Mather lookout is not known. In April of 1722, Benjamin Franklin began slipping anonymous articles, signed by "Silence Dogood," under the door of the New England Courant. The articles were at first much admired by the anti-science group, but as their author became famous in Boston, the tenor of the articles gradually changed, to become subtle attacks on the decay of New England's citizenry caused by the "Every man has his price" ideology of the Walpole ministry.

By late September of 1723, Franklin was ready to fulfill one of Mather's projects for distant places. He left Boston for Philadelphia, and no 17-year-old supposed runaway was ever more carefully monitored and helped along his way. Mather allies at every point made sure he reached his destination safely and, amazingly, two royal governors took a great interest in him. One of these, Gov. William Keith of Pennsylvania, another Mather ally and member of the trans-Atlantic republican network, proposed that Franklin should sail to England to obtain printing types, and then do the official printing for Pennsylvania!

Franklin returned to Boston in 1724 to see his father, and then met with Cotton Mather. Meanwhile, the articles and letters on American smallpox inoculations had interested Sir Hans Sloane, the President of the Royal Society. He invited Dr. Boylston to come to England, address the Royal Society, and witness the inoculations which were going on in England. Those inoculations had begun a short time before the smallpox epidemic had hit New England, and were partially a result of the efforts of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

Cotton Mather
Mary Wortley Montagu, by Charles Jervas, after 1716..

Lady Mary, who had been badly scarred by smallpox, was the wife of the British Ambassador to Constantinople, and while there, had observed the practice of inoculation. When she returned to England she campaigned for its adoption, and secured the support of the European republican faction led by the scientist and statesman Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This republican pro-science network was coordinated in the British Isles by the satirist and Anglican Minister Jonathan Swift. These allies of Mather obtained the support of Caroline, the wife of the future King George II, and she allowed herself and her daughters to be inoculated. Princess Caroline had been tutored by Leibniz as a young girl, and had been one of his favorite pupils.

Benjamin Franklin arrived in England in December of 1724, and played the role of a friendless apprentice who had been betrayed by the whim of the Pennsylvania governor, who had neglected to supply him with funds and the promised letters of introduction. But Dr. Boylston was conveniently on the spot, and by Franklin's later testimony he gave him both money and advice. Franklin's mission was to get a sense of the ideology and intentions of the Hellfire Club administration, but also to meet with the British republican faction. On the first, Franklin succeeded by writing a paper which got him a meeting with the evil Bernard Mandeville, whose Fable of the Bees stated that private vice was necessary for public good.

For the second goal, Dr. Boylston provided very necessary backup. With the help of Hans Sloane, Boylston lectured at the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society, and published his inoculation results under the title of "An Historical Account of the Small-Pox Inoculated in New England," which was dedicated to Princess Caroline. The Royal Society then elected him a member.

Boylston knew that Franklin needed more money than he could provide, and so somehow Sir Hans Sloane heard that there was an American lad in London who had a supply of curiosities. Sloane was such an avid collector that, upon his death, his collection became the basis of the newly founded British Museum. According to Franklin, "I had brought over a few curiosities, among which the principal was a purse made of the asbestos, which purifies by fire. Sir Hans Sloane heard of it, came to see me, and invited me to his house in Bloomsbury Square, where he showed me all his curiosities and persuaded me to add that to the number, for which he paid me handsomely."

But Dr. Boylston possibly provided a much more important opening for the young Ben Franklin. As part of his study of inoculation methods in England, Boylston attended the royal inoculations, as well as those of some of the leading families. Also present at these events was Dr. John Arbuthnot, the former physician to Queen Anne and a fellow member of the Royal Society. Arbuthnot was also the close friend of Jonathan Swift and with him had founded the Scriblerus Club. When Jonathan Swift came to England from his post in Ireland in the spring of 1726, it is entirely possible that Arbuthnot saw to it that Franklin met Swift and his republican cohorts.

Both Boylston and Franklin left England in 1726 to return to America. Boylston returned to Boston and continued to inoculate against smallpox, laying the basis for the later work of Benjamin Waterhouse, and George Washington's decision to inoculate the entire Continental Army. Franklin returned to Philadelphia and helped to found a new nation.