Did You Know Inoculation Was Invented By A Black Slave?

Cotton Mather, inoculation, Onesimus
Cotton Mather

Over the years, Cotton Mather's received all the credit for helping rid Boston of Smallpox. But the history is a shade darker and more nuanced. You see, Mather's received the key to inoculation from an African slave living in his home named Onesimus.

Note: The hand of a small child riddled with Smallpox.

Boston was being ravaged. And, in those times, many people thought to accept Smallpox as a part of life. The disease had already helped to decimate the local Native American population and many English. It was now turning itself on the new "Americans." 

Mather's was worried that it would destroy the colonies before they really began, and as the Royal Society seemed to be turning its minds eye on the field of inoculation, Mather's devoured everything he could. Soon, the African in his midst would become his savior and the savior or the new colonies. 

A ship from the West Indies carried smallpox on board in 1721. A full-blown epidemic had begun. This time, though, Mather's and Onesimus were ready. It was hard to figure that a clergyman would be the one to mine the secret of Boston's salvation from a slave, but history has strange bedfellows. 

He soon asked his slave, who he now figured as a bright man, if he'd ever had smallpox. The man responded "yes and no." Teaching Mather's that a small amount of the disease had been injected into his bloodstream years before, giving him an immunity. The good clergyman was astonished. 

"The key phrase was, “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop," said Onesimus. Mather's transcribed every word, African accent included. 

The next time that Smallpox showed up, Mather's was ready. He advocated for inoculation all throughout Boston, but only one person responded: an apothecary named Zabdiel Boylston who went on to inoculate his son and two slaves.

The wave of Smallpox was still brutal, but it worked. Though, despite his help, the name Onesimus all but disappeared from history. 

Click here to get alerts of the latest stories