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 in.
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 inoculation?
He'd seen it first hand in his African servant. The
man showed Mather his smallpox scar and told him
... 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