A Former Slave Schools New America on Medicine
If history is our guide, is it possible that there could be less vaccine hesitancy in if more folks knew that the concept that led to modern vaccination was brought to the United States by an enslaved Black man?
It’s a question worth exploring, given the coming winter season. The CDC has already warned about the possibility of a cold weather spike in Covid-19 cases and the government is also advising that going forward, Covid-19 will need to be treated like influenza, with the best protection from variants coming from getting updated yearly boosters.
According to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, only 49% of Black people in the United States planned on getting the Covid vaccine in December 2020. In a July 2022 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, almost every state has over 50% of its Black population with at least one dose of the Covid vaccine. There is still a ways to go to get everybody vaccinated, due to hesitancy.
“There is some hesitancy in our community to get vaccinated, but we should know that a Black man brought the technology behind vaccines, one of the most important public health strategies there is to America,” says Dr. Melissa Clarke. “Vaccines were not created to be against Black people, but rather as a result of and by Black people.”
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Knowledge of preventing disease was first brought to America in the early 1700s by a man named Onesimus, who was an enslaved African. He was given to a Puritan minister named Cotton Mather in Boston, Massachusetts, as a “gift” from his church congregation. Mather renamed him Onesimus as it means “useful” in Greek.
Cotton Mather was known in Massachusetts for having a prominent role in the Salem Witch Trials, warning judges about using spectral evidence during their trials.
He had an interest in witchcraft and medicine, taking in people that may have been possessed and studying them.
When a smallpox outbreak began in Boston in 1721, Onesimus was asked by Mather about his experience with protection against smallpox as he had come in contact with it before. Smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases in history, with three out of ten people dying from contracting it. He explained to Mather that he was protected from getting smallpox because of a procedure, inoculation, he had done in Africa before being enslaved.
At that time, vaccinating was commonly called inoculation. Inoculation is the process of introducing a weaker strain of disease onto a person’s open wound. Getting exposed to a small amount of smallpox via inoculation, gave his body the tools to fight it off in the future.
Inoculation was not well received amongst the New England community, as people did not believe that any knowledge from a slave could be true. Mather inoculated his son, and the process was almost deadly. People protested and threatened Mather’s life over his proposal to make inoculation a widespread practice. One day a bomb was thrown through his window with a note attached, “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’ll inoculate you with this, with a pox to you.’’
Only a small population ended up having the procedure done. Mather used inoculation to protect his family, friends, and enslaved peoples, and it prevented almost 200 deaths in Boston during the next big smallpox outbreak. The inoculation process led to the creation of the smallpox vaccine later that century and is the basis for today’s vaccines.
This great knowledge from a Black man helped to save hundreds of people back then and that knowledge now has saved millions of lives today, let’s get vaccinated!