Public-health biases haven't improved much since a smallpox epidemic ravaged Boston in 1721. Just the diseases are new.
Although the coronavirus pandemic is clearly starting to ebb, as of March 9, 2022 an average of 35,496 Americans were still be being hospitalized daily with the disease, and it’s still killing 1,451 citizens each day on average, the New York Times reported.
So, the current pandemic is far from over in the U.S., which makes an 18th-century Boston smallpox brouhaha perfectly relevant again today.
Soon after the coronavirus reached America’s eastern shores in 2020 and began its rampage, the Washington Post paralleled the onslaught with colonial Boston’s virulent smallpox outbreak in 1721 that sickened half of the town’s population of 11,000 and killed hundreds.
‘A terror that bordered on hysteria’
Nonetheless, Bostonians greeted with “a terror that bordered on hysteria” a proposal by local Puritan leader Cotton Mather that citizens be “inoculated” (a precursor to vaccination) by “scraping a piece of smallpox pus and inserting it under the skin of a healthy person.” Mather had learned about the then-novel folk treatment from his West African slave Onesimus.
Despite civic blowback, including a bomb thrown into his home that failed to detonate, Mather forged ahead in tandem with a local physician, Zabdiel Boylston, and the two innovators began inoculating family and agreeable others. It proved successful, if not perfect (some inoculants sickened but precious few died from the treatment).
Colonial Americans learned from this experience, and by 1777 during the Revolutionary War commanding General George Washington, who was losing far more soldiers to disease than combat, ordered all his troops inoculated. He made this decision despite knowing that a small percentage of treated troops would die from inoculation, and he later said it was one of his most consequential orders in winning the war.
If only we had continued such rational progress into the 21st century. But in a dangerous coalescence of modern-day ignorance, religion, and disinformation where the more things change the more they seem to stay the same, we seem to have instead taken a backward ride on a time machine and landed in terrorized Boston, circa 1771.
Epidemic redux: 34% in U.S. still refuse to vaccinate
Our uneven governmental and civic response to Covid-19 is a stark reminder that, sadly, some very consequential American vulnerabilities remain the same today as three centuries ago.
As normal life seems to be somewhat over-optimistically reasserting itself in America’s cities, towns, and rural enclaves despite still widely virulent COVID, we seem still to have not learned the pandemic’s—and American medical history’s—core lesson: Vaccines work. Any of three available and hugely effective COVID-19 vaccines is, without question, the key weapon against spread, much less eradication, of the disease and its inevitable variants.
However, variants are still emerging and the disease is still dangerously ubiquitous throughout the land mainly because some 34% of Americans still steadfastly refuse to get vaccinated, comprising tens upon tens of millions of people.
Why are they anti-vax?
For the same reasons their early 18th-century ancestors were, according to the Post:
“Fear of science, suspicion of the ruling elite, and a belief that medicine might meddle with God’s will — these ideas guided the angry mobs in Boston in 1721 and linger today in some form in anti-vaccine movements.”
Unfortunately, one thing that has changed is that in Cotton Mather’s day, clergy were champions rather than naysayers of science, which, in Boston was represented by then 85-year-old Harvard College, an institution located in the suburb of Cambridge that was founded by Puritan Protestants. Mather’s father, Increase, was the leading Puritan divine in the Massachusetts colony in his day and was formally president of Harvard from 1692-1701, but also led the university in other capacities earlier.
During Enlightenment, amateur scientists abounded
In the Enlightenment-infused 18th century, many learned men, such as Benjamin Franklin (women then were largely uneducated), were avid science hobbyists and experimenters.
Cotton Mather, who had earlier lost his wife and two daughters in a measles epidemic, became a true believer in inoculation. Still, Mather could not shake his religious foundations. He claimed not that inoculations were a victory of science but a “gift from God” and that opponents weren’t just ignorant but possessed by Satan.
Ironically, William Douglass, a Scot who had spearheaded resistance against the Mather/Boylston inoculation initiative, “was Boston’s only university-trained doctor,” the Post noted.
So, as modern-day American vaccine fearmongers broadly spread disinformation about the recommendations of “elite” public health, immunology, and infectious disease experts, we see that it’s just back to the future.
When the smallpox inoculations proved strikingly effective, even soldiers returning home from the Revolutionary War reportedly used part of their severance pay to get inoculated. By then, everyone knew someone who had sickened and/or died from the disease throughout the colonies. Over time, evolving vaccines transformed American and global public health strategies and tactics, and enormously reduced the theretofore horrible impact of infectious diseases.
The previously unconvinced Dr. Douglass even started doing inoculations himself after the Boston smallpox epidemic.
If not for ignorance, religious bigotry, and disinformation, the public-health metamorphosis, if not eradication of continuing irrational fears, would likely have happened far sooner.
Infections were once commonly death sentences
In the colonial Boston epidemic, 5,889 citizens contracted smallpox and 844 died between April and December. It was a terribly feared disease, commonly killing 30% of infected ethnic Europeans. A postscript: smallpox inflicted “sweeping epidemics among North American indigenous tribes, causing 25% to 50% mortality because they lacked European’s evolved genetic immunity and were thus far more susceptible to the virus’ lethality.
In 18th-century America (and worldwide), before effective vaccines and antibiotics, infectious disease was distressingly often a death sentence.
“By comparison, the vast majority of 21st-century Americans have neither contracted the mumps, measles, or rubella, nor do they know someone who has, making it harder for them to understand the consequences of not vaccinating,” the Post article noted.
Not to mention the conquering of polio and smallpox.
As of early March this year, 79.3 million Americans had contracted Covid-19 and nearly a million (958,625) had died from it. That’s just shy of the 1.1 million Americans combined who have perished in all U.S. wars throughout our history.
Yet, tens of millions of Americans, putting fellow citizens at grave risk, continue to refuse vaccination to protect against coronavirus, as vaccines undeniably do.
And often they, as many Americans did in 1721, condemn vaxxing as playing God.
What sort of callous deity, if unwilling or unable to stop this scourge Himself, would forbid us from doing it if we could (we could and can)—in 1721 or 2022.
The death of Ben Franklin’s son, Franky
A postscript: Benjamin and his wife, Deborah, were inoculated against smallpox, but when another smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1736, they chose not to inoculate their toddler son, Francis, because he was sick with a cold and they feared he would be vulnerable to side effects of the intervention.
But his son, known as Franky, soon sickened with the virus and died.
“This is the great tragedy of Franklin’s life,” New York Times writer David Leonhardt wrote in a subscriber newsletter about what filmmaker Ken Burns once told him. “Deborah and Benjamin Franklin were just beset by this mistake they made even though it was completely understandable.”
Many, many Americans are still making the same often fatal mistake, however well-intentioned. The filmmaker’s “powerful” new documentary, “Benjamin Franklin”, airs on PBS next month.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of American hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID are of unvaccinated patients. People who have received three doses of a COVID-19 vaccine or a booster are 93.4% less likely to die of the virus than the unvaccinated, according to a new U.K. study released in February.
So, if you haven’t already, get vaccinated. Because, if we don’t make wise decisions, as I said earlier, the more things change, the more they unfortunately will stay the same.