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How an Enslaved African Man in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox


The news was terrifying to colonists in Massachusetts: Smallpox had made it to Boston and was spreading rapidly. The first victims, passengers on a ship from the Caribbean, were shut up in a house identified only by a red flag that read “God have mercy on this house.” Meanwhile, hundreds of residents of the bustling colonial town had started to flee for their lives, terrified of what might happen if they exposed themselves to the frequently deadly disease.

They had reason to fear. The virus was extremely contagious, spreading like wildfire in large epidemics. Smallpox patients experienced fever, fatigue and a crusty rash that could leave disfiguring scars. In up to 30 percent of cases, it killed.

But the smallpox epidemic of 1721 was different than any that came before it. As sickness swept through the city, killing hundreds in a time before modern medical treatment or a robust understanding of infectious disease, an enslaved man known only as Onesimus suggested a potential way to keep people from getting sick. Intrigued by Onesimus’ idea, a brave doctor and an outspoken minister undertook a bold experiment to try to stop smallpox in its tracks.

Smallpox was one of the era’s deadliest afflictions. “Few diseases at this time were as universal or fatal,” notes historian Susan Pryor. The colonists saw its effects not just among their own countrymen, but among the Native Americans to whom they introduced the disease. Smallpox destroyed Native communities that, with no immunity, were unable to fight off the virus.

Smallpox also entered the colonies on slave ships, transmitted by enslaved people who, in packed and unsanitary quarters, passed the disease along to one another and, eventually, to colonists at their destinations. One of those destinations was Massachusetts, which was a center of the early slave trade. The first enslaved people had arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, and by 1700, about 1,000 enslaved people lived in the colony, most in Boston.

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In 1706, an enslaved West African man was purchased for the prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather by his congregation. Mather gave him the name Onesimus, after an enslaved man in the Bible whose name meant “useful.” Mather, who had been a powerful figure in the Salem Witch Trials, believed that owners of enslaved people had a duty to convert enslaved people to Christianity and educate them. But like other white men of his era, he also looked down on what he called the “Devilish rites” of Africans and worried that enslaved people might openly rebel.

Mather didn’t trust Onesimus: He wrote about having to watch him carefully due to what he thought was “thievish” behavior, and recorded in his diary that he was “wicked” and “useless.” But in 1716, Onesimus told him something he did believe: That he knew how to prevent smallpox.

Onesimus, who “is a pretty intelligent fellow,” Mather wrote, told him he had had smallpox—and then hadn’t. Onesimus said that he “had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it...and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.”

The operation Onesimus referred to consisted of rubbing pus from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. Once the infected material was introduced into the body, the person who underwent the procedure was inoculated against smallpox. It wasn’t a vaccination, which involves exposure to a less dangerous virus to provoke immunity. But it did activate the recipient’s immune response and protected against the disease most of the time.

Mather was fascinated. He verified Onesimus’ story with that of other enslaved people, and learned that the practice had been used in Turkey and China. He became an evangelist for inoculation—also known as variolation—and spread the word throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere in the hopes it would help prevent smallpox.

But Mather hadn’t bargained on how unpopular the idea would be. The same prejudices that caused him to distrust his servant made other white colonists reluctant to undergo a medical procedure developed by or for Black people. Mather “was vilified,” historian Ted Widmer told WGBH. “A local newspaper, called The New England Courant, ridiculed him. An explosive device was thrown through his windows with an angry note. There was an ugly racial element to the anger.” Religion also contributed: Other preachers argued that it was against God’s will to expose his creatures to dangerous diseases.

But in 1721, Mather and Zabdiel Boylston, the only physician in Boston who supported the technique, got their chance to test the power of inoculation. That year, a smallpox epidemic spread from a ship to the population of Boston, sickening about half of the city’s residents. Boylston sprang into action, inoculating his son and his enslaved workers against the disease. Then, he began inoculating other Bostonians. Of the 242 people he inoculated, only six died—one in 40, as opposed to one in seven deaths among the population of Boston who didn’t undergo the procedure.

The smallpox epidemic wiped out 844 people in Boston, over 14 percent of the population. But it had yielded hope for future epidemics. It also helped set the stage for vaccination. In 1796, Edward Jenner developed an effective vaccine that used cowpox to provoke smallpox immunity. It worked. Eventually, smallpox vaccination became mandatory in Massachusetts.

Did Onesimus live to see the success of the technique he introduced to Mather? It isn’t clear. Nothing is known of his later life other than that he partially purchased his freedom. To do so, writes historian Steven J. Niven, he gave Mather money to purchase another enslaved person. What is clear is that the knowledge he passed on saved hundreds of lives—and led to the eventual eradication of smallpox.

In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox entirely eradicated due to the spread of immunization worldwide. It remains the only infectious disease to have been entirely wiped out.

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Opinion: Root of COVID vaccine came from enslaved African American

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As the nation ramps up its COVID-19 vaccination schedule, African-American communities are still disproportionately feeling the impact of the virus and are not getting the same access to the vaccine as other groups. The irony of all of this is that it was an African American who first introduced the underlying concept of vaccination to America in the early 1700s.

Dr. Anthony Iton is senior vice president of the California Endowment. (Courtesy of The California Endowment)

An enslaved person in Boston named Onesimus explained to his enslaver, Cotton Mather, the process of inoculation or variolation. Variolation was the ancient African practice of taking a small amount of the fluid from an active smallpox skin lesion of an infected person and transferring it to a wound on an uninfected person, thus inoculating that uninfected person. This is the central concept underlying vaccination that is in use today.

Onesimus’ ancient wisdom ultimately led to George Washington successfully inoculating the entire U.S. Continental Army against smallpox. Some historians have argued the decision to inoculate the American army ultimately was key to the United States winning the War of Independence.

Eventually, cowpox, a similar disease among cattle, became the source of “inoculum” used for treating smallpox. That basic strategy led to the eradication of smallpox across the planet and the birth of vaccination as an enormously effective strategy for the prevention of numerous diseases, particularly previously fatal diseases of childhood.

All of this came from Onesimus, an enslaved African man. However, more than 300 years after Onesimus’ history-changing revelation, African Americans have struggled to get the COVID-19 vaccine and continue to distrust the American medical establishment.

A poll commissioned by The California Endowment shows that demographic groups most vulnerable to COVID-19 are willing to take the vaccine, although many respondents are concerned about potential side effects and the lack of due diligence in ensuring the safety of the vaccine. African-American respondents were more skeptical of the coronavirus vaccine. That is not surprising given the egregiously racist history of medical institutions and professionals, working in concert with the government, to consciously mistreat us in experiments and deny us care.

African Americans in California were slightly less likely to agree that “the vaccine will be effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19” (62%) than were other ethnic groups and were less likely to encourage friends and family to get it (50%). Among parents, 46% of African-American respondents said they’d want their children to receive the vaccine.

African-American respondents were also more likely than other groups to agree that the U.S. government does not care about the impact of COVID-19 on their communities (60%), and that the vaccine will cause more problems than the disease itself (44%).

We cannot begin to successfully unravel the layers of structural racism that continue to place African Americans and others directly in harm’s way from COVID-19 and so many other diseases if we don’t begin to tell the truth about our suppressed and whitewashed histories and start repairing the harm of generations of American racism.


'He described the operation to me, and showed me in his arm the scar'

While few details about Onesimus' life are known, Jones said that he was given as a gift to prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather by Mather's congregation.

“The whole notion that a congregation would give its minister as a present an enslaved person is testimony to the rotten world in which all these people inhabited, but Mather describes him as a pretty intelligent fellow,” Jones said.

Mather, an influential figure in the Salem witch trials, was trying to find a way to fight smallpox, a disease that had devastated New England in waves in the 1600s and 1702, according to a journal article written by epidemiologists at Case Western Reserve University. He turned to the practice of inoculation — infecting people with a weakened form of the disease to allow their bodies to create a resistance to it through what we now know as antibodies, which he had first discovered through Onesimus.

Successful cases of inoculation had already appeared in Turkey, China and India by 1721. The scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published some of these accounts, including Mather’s own search for a cure for smallpox, wrote Arthur Boylston, a former professor of pathology at the University of Leeds, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Onesimus had been inoculated in his native West Africa, according to LaShyra Nolen, a student at Harvard Medical School who has researched Onesimus. He served as "living proof" that inoculation worked for the influential Mather.

In a letter cited by Bolyston, Mather credited his belief in inoculation to Onesimus, writing that Onesimus “had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it.”

“He described the operation to me, and showed me in his arm the scar which it had left upon him,” Mather wrote.

Onesimus’ testimony led to one of the first known smallpox inoculation campaigns in American history during the 1721-1722 epidemic in Massachusetts, according to Harvard Medical School account of the outbreak. At Mather’s urging, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston inoculated his own son, Mather’s son and 285 other Bostonians. (Read a contemporary account here.)

Of the 287 people who were inoculated, only 2% of them died, a Massachusetts state epidemiologist wrote in 1921 in the forerunner to The New England Journal of Medicine. More than 14% of the people who were not inoculated and contracted smallpox died, a much larger portion of the 850-person death toll. And in the years that followed, inoculations increased in Boston while "natural" smallpox infections, ones not caused by inoculation, fell dramatically.

Instances of inoculation such as the Boston trial paved the way for Edward Jenner, an English physician, to develop the first vaccine for smallpox in 1796. It was the world's first immunization.

Some of the first people included in Mather's smallpox inoculation experiment in Boston were enslaved adults and their children, Reed College history professor Margot Minardi said. She noted that, while they weren't the only test subjects in the inoculation trial, the people in slavery likely could not decline.

The trial proved to be successful, but she said in an email it was an early instance of a trend: “This inoculation trial is thus one of the many instances in American medical history where medical experimentation was done on people of color who didn't necessarily have a say in what was done to their bodies.”

Not all Bostonians agreed with the practice of inoculation, especially because the idea originated with an enslaved man. Dr. William Douglass, one of the only physicians in Boston to hold a medical degree at the time, lambasted Mather for spearheading the untested practice.

“The Boston community had a mixed assessment of whether or not you could trust someone like Onesimus, either as an authority of scientific knowledge or public health knowledge,” Jones said.

The public backlash to inoculation was so fierce that someone threw a small bomb through Mather's window, according to the Harvard Medical School account of the smallpox epidemic that covers Onesimus and Mather. It had a message attached: “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’ll inoculate you with this with a pox to you."


How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox

Cotton Mather’s successful smallpox campaign was based on inoculation advice he received from a slave named Onesimus. Universal History Archive/Getty/Getty

T he spread of Ebola has added a scary twist to one of the clichés of our age: that we live in a world of shrinking distances. Boston isn’t one of the five US airports where officials will aim an infrared thermometer gun at anyone coming off a plane from West Africa. But passengers who reached Logan Airport with flu-like symptoms last week were escorted to hospitals by a team in hazmat suits, and our eyes now scan the horizon nervously, wondering about every new arrival.

New as it might seem, this anxiety about our hyperconnectivity has a long lineage: In the 17th and 18th centuries, Bostonians felt a similar terror. The ships that streamed into Boston Harbor from around the Atlantic world carried a vital lifeblood—the commerce that built Boston—but they also carried the microbes of infectious disease.

The most fearsome of all was smallpox, the disease that wiped out so many Native Americans at the time of European settlement, and that also killed large numbers of the English. A terrible epidemic came in 1721, infecting roughly half of Boston’s 11,000 residents. But Boston’s approach to public health changed that year, thanks to an experimental strategy for inoculating citizens with small traces of the disease.

The idea behind this radical new treatment came from Africa, specifically from a slave named Onesimus, who shared his knowledge with Cotton Mather, the town’s leading minister and his legal owner. Boston still suffered dreadfully, but thanks to Onesimus and Mather, the terror linked to smallpox began to recede after Africans rolled up their sleeves—literally—to show Boston how inoculation worked. The story of how Boston began to overcome smallpox illustrates the strife that epidemics can cause, but also the encouraging notion that humans can communicate remedies as quickly as they communicate germs—and that the solutions we most need often come from the places we least expect to find them.

T o early New Englanders, smallpox was one of life’s many imponderables. No one really knew where the disease came from. Was it carried by bad air, or sent as a form of divine retribution for personal failings? Boston had plenty to fear on both counts—one observer described the town at low tide as “a very stinking puddle.” Medical knowledge was still primitive a learned scientist, John Winthrop Jr., kept what he thought was a unicorn horn in his cabinet. For most, the first line of defense was the prayer book.

Disease was an inseparable part of the New England story from the beginning. It arrived wirh the Great Migration of the 1630s, aboard the very ships that brought so many families to New England. It returned in 1666, and again in 1678, when an epidemic killed 340 Bostonians. A young Cotton Mather wrote, “Boston burying-places never filled so fast.” With time, local leaders began to develop crude public health policies—burying the dead quickly, flying red flags over houses affected, and requiring ships with sick sailors to stop at Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor. But as Bostonians knew, the next epidemic was always just over the horizon. In 1721, on April 22, the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies with smallpox on board, and despite precautions, a full-blown epidemic started.

This time, however, the city was better prepared, thanks to several unlikely heroes. Cotton Mather is not always the easiest figure to admire. The scion of a dynasty of ministers, he fought a lengthy rear-guard action against time, trying to stanch the ebbing of power among the city’s religious authorities. But he was surprisingly modern in some ways, and paid attention to the new forms of knowledge coming in on those ships. Another contradiction lay in his racial attitudes—his writings suggest that, more than most of his contemporaries, he admired Africans, but he also accepted slavery, and had raised no objections when his congregation presented him with a young slave in 1706. He named him Onesimus, after a slave belonging to St. Paul.

Mather had come close to choosing a career in medicine, and devoured the scientific publications of the Royal Society in London. As the society began to turn its attention to inoculation practices around the world, Mather realized that he had an extraordinary expert living in his household. Onesimus was a “pretty Intelligent Fellow,” it had become clear to him. When asked if he’d ever had smallpox, Onesimus answered “Yes and No,” explaining that he had been inoculated with a small amount of smallpox, which had left him immune to the disease. Fascinated, Mather asked for details, which Onesimus provided, and showed him his scar. We can almost hear Onesimus speaking in Mather’s accounts, for Mather took the unusual step of writing out his words with the African accent included—the key phrase was, “People take Juice of Small-Pox and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”

Excited, he investigated among other Africans in Boston and realized that it was a widespread practice indeed, a slave could be expected to fetch a higher price with a scar on his arm, indicating that he was immune. Mather sent the Royal Society his own reports from the wilds of America, eager to prove the relevance of Boston (and by extension, Cotton Mather) to the global crusade against infectious disease. His interviews with Onesimus were crucial. In 1716, writing to an English friend, he promised that he would be ready to promote inoculation if smallpox ever visited the city again.

When it did, Mather pursued a determined course of action, asking doctors to inoculate their patients and ministers to support the plan. His call was answered by only one person, an apothecary named Zabdiel Boylston, who began by inoculating his 6-year-old son, Thomas, and two slaves.

A treatise on smallpox by Zabdiel Boylston. MPI/Getty Images/Getty Images

As word spread of the new medicine, the people of Boston were terrified and angry. According to Mather, they “raised an horrid Clamour.” Their rage came from many sources fear that inoculation might spread smallpox further knowledge that the bubonic plague was on the rise in France and a righteous fury that it was immoral to tamper with God’s judgment in this way. There was a racial tone to their response as well, as they rebelled against an idea that was not only foreign, but African (one critic, an eminent doctor, attacked Mather for his “Negroish” thinking). Some of Mather’s opponents compared inoculation to what we would now call terrorism—as if “a man should willfully throw a Bomb into a Town.” Indeed, one local terrorist did exactly that, throwing a bomb through Mather’s window, with a note that read, “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You I’l inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”

Another attack came from the New-England Courant, a newspaper that debuted on Aug. 7, as smallpox raged. The brainchild of a satirical editor, James Franklin, it was unlike anything Boston had seen before, ridiculing an older generation perennially telling everyone else how to behave. Inevitably, it jumped right into the inoculation debate, finding its fattest target in the prig who was always lecturing Bostonians—the Very Rev. Cotton Mather, D.D. At 58, he was the last avatar of a worldview that had exhausted itself in the 17th century, particularly during the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692, which he had helped to bring about. It must have seemed as if the entire town was against him.

But in this instance, he knew what he was talking about. Through all of the opposition, he and Zabdiel Boylston persevered in their efforts to “Conquer the Dragon.” As the dreadful year continued and smallpox took its toll, the results began to tell. Inoculation was not perfect, but it was a far more effective response than doing nothing at all. When the epidemic had run its course, 5,889 people had contracted the disease (roughly half the town), and 844 people had died, or one in seven. Of the 242 who had been inoculated, only six had died–one in 40.

In the aftermath, Mather and Boylston were lionized for their courage, and Boylston was received with accolades in London, where he went for a long visit. Little is known about the fate of Onesimus, though Mather recorded that he was able to buy his freedom.

G od knows that Cotton Mather could be hard to take—one reason the New-England Courant found an immediate audience by attacking him. But in his openness to science and evidence, and his willingness to listen to an African living in his household, he showed a capacity for self-correction that redeemed some of his earlier failings. We will never know if he found redemption in the sense of the word he understood but he found a meaningful second chance in 1721, and embraced it.

Boston was not quite out of the woods—other epidemics would come, often during wars that we remember with more clarity. But a smallpox vaccine, safer than amateur inoculation, was invented in 1796. Nearly 200 years later, in 1979, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been eradicated. That immense victory, which took centuries to consummate, was brought closer by the knowledge that an African-Bostonian brought to a city where he was held in slavery at the beginning of the 18th century.

The episode is also fascinating for one final aftereffect. An important witness to the debate over inoculation was a 15-year-old boy, the younger brother of Cotton Mather’s chief tormentor in the Courant. Perhaps the most famous Bostonian of all time, Benjamin Franklin made his fortune, of course, by fleeing the city and its theological disputes for Philadelphia. As an adult, possibly with some acknowledgment that he and James had been too quick to ridicule an elderly minister trying to use science on behalf of humanity, Franklin would become an important advocate of inoculation, especially after his own son died of smallpox.

Franklin also had a personal encounter with Zabdiel Boylston in London, not long after the smallpox crisis, that changed his life. The young Franklin had run out of money and options, and Boylston helped him with a crucial loan of 20 guineas, despite the fact that Franklin and his brother had attacked his medical efforts throughout 1721. As an old man in Paris, Franklin met a young relative of Boylston’s and told him that he could never repay what that loan had meant to him at a low moment. “I owe everything I am to him,” he confided, before asking the young man what he could do for him.

Today, as anxiety leads many to see all of Africa as a potential source of infection, it may be time to revive a similar feeling of reciprocity—and an appreciation for what African medical knowledge meant to Boston during the most serious health crisis of its early history.

Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. He is an Ideas columnist.


How an African Slave in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox

The news was terrifying to colonists in Massachusetts: Smallpox had made it to Boston and was spreading rapidly. The first victims, passengers on a ship from the Caribbean, were shut up in a house identified only by a red flag that read “God have mercy on this house.” Meanwhile, hundreds of residents of the bustling colonial town had started to flee for their lives, terrified of what might happen if they exposed themselves to the frequently deadly disease.

They had reason to fear. The virus was extremely contagious, spreading like wildfire in large epidemics. Smallpox patients experienced fever, fatigue and a crusty rash that could leave disfiguring scars. In up to 30 percent of cases, it killed.

A Boston advertisement for a cargo of about 250 slaves recently arrived from Africa circa 1700, particularly stressing that the slaves are free of smallpox, having been quarantined on their ship.

But the smallpox epidemic of 1721 was different than any that came before it. As sickness swept through the city, killing hundreds in a time before modern medical treatment or a robust understanding of infectious disease, an enslaved man known only as Onesimus suggested a potential way to keep people from getting sick. Intrigued by Onesimus’ idea, a brave doctor and an outspoken minister undertook a bold experiment to try to stop smallpox in its tracks.

Smallpox was one of the era’s deadliest afflictions. “Few diseases at this time were as universal or fatal,” notes historian Susan Pryor. The colonists saw its effects not just among their own countrymen, but among the Native Americans to whom they introduced the disease. Smallpox destroyed Native communities that, with no immunity, were unable to fight off the virus.

Smallpox also entered the colonies on slave ships, transmitted by enslaved people who, in packed and unsanitary quarters, passed the disease along to one another and, eventually, to colonists at their destinations. One of those destinations was Massachusetts, which was a center of the early slave trade. The first slaves had arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, and by 1700, about 1,000 slaves lived in the colony, most in Boston.

In 1706, an enslaved West African man was purchased for the prominent Puritan minister Cotton Mather by his congregation. Mather gave him the name Onesimus, after a Biblical slave whose name meant “useful.” Mather, who had been a powerful figure in the Salem Witch Trials, believed that slave owners had a duty to convert slaves to Christianity and educate them. But like other white men of his era, he also looked down on what he called the “Devilish rites” of Africans and worried that enslaved people might openly rebel.

Mather didn’t trust Onesimus: He wrote about having to watch him carefully due to what he thought was “thievish” behavior, and recorded in his diary that he was “wicked” and “useless.” But in 1716, Onesimus told him something he did believe: That he knew how to prevent smallpox.

Onesimus, who “is a pretty intelligent fellow,” Mather wrote, told him he had had smallpox—and then hadn’t. Onesimus said that he “had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it…and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.”

The operation Onesimus referred to consisted of rubbing pus from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. Once the infected material was introduced into the body, the person who underwent the procedure was inoculated against smallpox. It wasn’t a vaccination, which involves exposure to a less dangerous virus to provoke immunity. But it did activate the recipient’s immune response and protected against the disease most of the time.

Mather was fascinated. He verified Onesimus’ story with that of other enslaved people, and learned that the practice had been used in Turkey and China. He became an evangelist for inoculation—also known as variolation—and spread the word throughout Massachusetts and elsewhere in the hopes it would help prevent smallpox.

But Mather hadn’t bargained on how unpopular the idea would be. The same prejudices that caused him to distrust his servant made other white colonists reluctant to undergo a medical procedure developed by or for black people. Mather “was vilified,” historian Ted Widmer told WGBH. “A local newspaper, called The New England Courant, ridiculed him. An explosive device was thrown through his windows with an angry note. There was an ugly racial element to the anger.” Religion also contributed: Other preachers argued that it was against God’s will to expose his creatures to dangerous diseases.

But in 1721, Mather and Zabdiel Boylston, the only physician in Boston who supported the technique, got their chance to test the power of inoculation. That year, a smallpox epidemic spread from a ship to the population of Boston, sickening about half of the city’s residents. Boylston sprang into action, inoculating his son and his slaves against the disease. Then, he began inoculating other Bostonians. Of the 242 people he inoculated, only six died—one in 40, as opposed to one in seven deaths among the population of Boston who didn’t undergo the procedure.

The smallpox epidemic wiped out 844 people in Boston, over 14 percent of the population. But it had yielded hope for future epidemics. It also helped set the stage for vaccination. In 1796, Edward Jenner developed an effective vaccine that used cowpox to provoke smallpox immunity. It worked. Eventually, smallpox vaccination became mandatory in Massachusetts.

Did Onesimus live to see the success of the technique he introduced to Mather? It isn’t clear. Nothing is known of his later life other than that he partially purchased his freedom. To do so, writes historian Steven J. Niven, he gave Mather money to purchase another slave. What is clear is that the knowledge he passed on saved hundreds of lives—and led to the eventual eradication of smallpox.

In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox entirely eradicated due to the spread of immunization worldwide. It remains the only infectious disease to have been entirely wiped out.


Shape the world with science

Inspired by the story of Onesimus and his contribution to scientific understanding? You too can shape the world with science.

Vaccines have long been an important way to protect people from infectious diseases, and now they are arguably more important than ever before. However, it’s important to note that there are disparities in vaccination rates and trust in vaccinations in some cultures, and among different groups, races and ethnicities. Some of this stems from a history of mistreatment of racial and ethnic minorities by medical establishments. For Black Americans, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study of 1932 is just one example of this type of exploitation.

So isn’t it interesting to know that the practice of vaccination in the country was in fact inspired by an enslaved Black man?

With the spread of COVID-19, research into vaccines is a global priority. Scientists across the world have worked around the clock to find effective vaccines in an unprecedentedly short timeframe. These monumental efforts will save lives and minimise the spread of the coronavirus so that economies and societies can begin to recover.

Students and staff at our partner university, Simmons University in Boston, have been contributing to fighting coronavirus through an impressive data-gathering project and community engagement.

Indeed, healthcare does not exist in a world of its own, so this type of community interaction is an important part of working in this industry. Healthcare workers should be culturally competent and aware of the socioeconomic conditions of the patients they treat. US universities offer opportunities to minor in subjects such as African American Studies, Sociology or Social Work, which can be a great way to complement healthcare studies.

You can study a healthcare-related degree at Simmons and enjoy the University’s location in the city’s Longwood Medical Area, which is home to 21 medical and academic institutions, including Harvard’s medical, dental and public health schools.

Simmons’ incredible location means that you could benefit from the University’s affiliation with top healthcare institutions and boost your career opportunities.

Take a look at the degree finder below to see what you can study at Simmons University to shape the world with science.


A Slave’s African Medical Science Saves The Lives Of Bostonians During The 172 Smallpox Epidemic

Onesimus and his inoculation account (Photo: Face2FaceAfrican.com)

By Stacy M. Brown, NNPA Newswire [email protected]

“I didn’t know I was a slave until I found out I couldn’t do the things I wanted.” — Frederick Douglass

“I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed.” — Ralph Ellison

As another Black History Month approaches, the observance of Black Excellence, Black Girl Magic, Black Power and other invigorating movements of the African American begins to take center stage.

From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to Malcolm X and also many of the world’s greatest Black athletes and entertainers, the country celebrates their achievements.

While some may never tire of hearing about the greatness of Civil Rights leaders, famous Black athletes and renowned entertainers, Black History Month also represents a time to focus on the unsung.

“I’d like to read about people who made impacts but are not entertainers, musicians, and those we hear about every Black History Month,” said Kisha A. Brown, the founder and CEO of Justis Connection, a service that connects the top legal talent of color to local communities.

“The Black Press is an aspect of the fabric of the Black existence in America that is not getting enough attention or support from the community. We rally to support athletes and artists who are ‘wronged’ by the system, but we fail to honor is the voice of the Black Press that has been capturing our stories for centuries,” Brown said.

“Long before Black Twitter and online blogs, and so the Black Press is not only an essential voice but it is also a historical and cultural archaeological goldmine that we must preserve,” she said.

In an email, Laurie Endicott Thomas, the author of “No More Measles: The Truth About Vaccines and Your Health,” said the most important person in the history of American medicine was an enslaved African whose real name we do not know.

“His slave name was Onesimus, which means useful in Latin. The Biblical Onesmius ran away from slavery but was persuaded to return to his master,” Thomas said.

“The African American Onesimus was the person who introduced the practice of immunization against smallpox to North America. This immunization process was called variolation because it involved real smallpox. Variolation led to sharp decreases in the death rate from smallpox and an important decrease in overall death rates,” she said.

Thomas’ thoughts jelled with a Harvard University study and a Boston WGHB reportfrom 2016 which noted that after 150 years, Jack Daniels finally came clean that its famed whisky recipe came courtesy of a Tennessee slave.

“This is – of course – by no means the only example of a slave’s contribution to American industry and culture being, at worst, stolen and, at best, minimized or completely forgotten. There was Baltimore slave Benjamin Bradley’s steam engine.

“And a Mississippi slave known only as Ned’s cotton scraper. And then, there was Boston’s own Onesimus.

“While Massachusetts was among the first states to abolish slavery, it was also one of the first to embrace it. In 1720’s Boston, buying a human being was apparently an appropriate way thank to your local man of God.”

“He was presented to Cotton Mather by his congregation as a gift, which is, of course, extremely troubling,” Brown University history professor Ted Widmer told WGHB.

Cotton Mather was a true puritan. A towering if controversial figure, especially following the Salem witch hysteria to which his preaching and writings greatly contributed.

“Mather was interested in his slave whom he called Onesimus which was the name of a slave belonging to St. Paul in the Bible,” explained Widmer.

Described by Mather as a “pretty intelligent fellow,” Onesimus had a small scar on his arm, which he explained to Mather was why he had no fear of the era’s single deadliest disease: smallpox.

“Mather was fascinated by what Onesimus knew of inoculation practices back in Africa where he was from,” said Widmer.

Viewed mainly with suspicion by the few Europeans’ of the era who were even aware of inoculation, it’s benefits were known at the time in places in places like China, Turkey and Onesimus’ native West Africa.

“Our way of thinking of the world is often not accurate,” said Widmer. “For centuries Europe was behind other parts of the world in its medical practices.”

Bostonians like Mather were no strangers to smallpox.

Outbreaks in 1690 and 1702 had devastated the colonial city. And Widmer says Mather took a keen interest in Onesimus’ understanding of how the inoculation was done.

“They would take a small amount of a similar disease, sometimes cowpox, and they would open a cut and put a little drop of the disease into the bloodstream,” explained Widmer.

“And they knew that that was a way of developing resistance to it.”

The Harvard University report further cemented what Onesimus accomplished after a smallpox outbreak once again gripped Boston in 1721.

Although inoculation was already common in certain parts of the world by the early 18th century, it was only just beginning to be discussed in England and colonial America, according to researchers.

Mather is largely credited with introducing inoculation to the colonies and doing a great deal to promote the use of this method as standard for smallpox prevention during the 1721 epidemic, Harvard authors wrote.

Then, they noted: Mather is believed to have first learned about inoculation from his West African slave Onesimus, writing, “he told me that he had undergone the operation which had given something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it, adding that was often used in West Africa.’’

After confirming this account with other West African slaves and reading of similar methods being performed in Turkey, Mather became an avid proponent of inoculation.

When the 1721 smallpox epidemic struck Boston, Mather took the opportunity to campaign for the systematic application of inoculation.

What followed was a fierce public debate, but also one of the first widespread and well-documented uses of inoculation to combat such an epidemic in the West.

“A few people who got inoculated did die. But roughly one in 40 did, and roughly one in seven members of the general population dies, so you had a much worse chance of surviving small pox if you did nothing,” according to WGHB’s research.

Mather and Boylston both wrote about their findings, which were circulated at home and impressed the scientific elite in London, adding invaluable data at a crucial time that helped lay the groundwork for Edward Jenner’s famed first smallpox vaccine 75 years later.

“Even though most of the city was on the wrong side and didn’t want inoculation to happen they were smart enough to realize afterward that they had been wrong,” Widmer said. “And so, there was a higher level of respect for science going forward.”

The scourge of slavery would continue in Massachusetts for another 60 years, but as for the man whose knowledge sparked the breakthrough…

“Onesimus was recognized as the savior of a lot of Bostonians and was admired and then was emancipated,” Widmer said. “Onesimus was a hero. He gave of his knowledge freely and was himself freed.”

Thomas, who has worked as an editor in medical and academic publishing for more than 25 years, added that it’s important for African Americans to understand that immunizations were originally an African practice that Africans brought with them to America.

“Since then, African Americans played an important role in making vaccines safer and more effective,” she said, noting that an African American woman scientist named Loney Gordon played a key role in the development of the vaccine against whooping cough – or pertussis.


Born Enslaved, Patrick Francis Healy ‘Passed’ His Way to Lead Georgetown University

This back-to-school season, as the coronavirus pandemic demands continued social distancing, many college students are logging onto their classes remotely. While the country fights this public health crisis on one front, it fights the ongoing effects of systemic racism on another, and the battle is joined on America’s college campuses, where skyrocketing tuition costs, debates over academic freedom, and reckonings with the legacies of institutional racism come together.

The University of North Carolina, for instance, has had to tackle both crises this summer, as it shuttered dorms and sent students home after Covid-19 cases spiked soon after opening. In July, administrators approved guidelines for renaming buildings that currently honor North Carolinians who promoted the murderous 1898 overthrow of Wilmington’s elected multiracial government. In June, meanwhile, Princeton acceded to longstanding demands to strip Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school, since his most notorious public policy as President of the United States was to segregate the federal workforce. Following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, an ever-widening circle of students on campuses nationwide are re-examining their institutions’ unquestioned genuflection to their white-supremacist heritage.

But at Georgetown University, students, faculty, alumni, and administration have been re-appraising the school’s racist past for years. In 1838, when the Jesuit school was deep in debt, its president, Reverend Thomas F. Mulledy, on behalf of the Maryland Jesuits, sold 272 black men, women and children to Louisiana plantations to keep the school afloat. Three years ago, Georgetown pulled Mulledy’s name off a dormitory, replacing it with the name of enslaved laborer Isaac Hawkins. Georgetown will now consider applicants who are descendants of these enslaved persons in the same light as the children of faculty, staff and alumni for purposes of admission.

What makes Georgetown’s reflective moment most remarkable, however, and complicated, is that 35 years after Mulledy salvaged the school’s finances by selling human property, the school would be led by a man who, himself, was born enslaved. The story of Georgetown president Reverend Patrick Francis Healy reveals how a university built by enslaved persons, and rescued from collapse by the sale of enslaved persons, saw its “second founding” in the late 19th century under the guidance of a man whom the Jesuits knew had been born black but helped “pass” as white.

During his tenure from 1874 to 1883, Healy transformed the small Jesuit college into a world-class university, expanding the undergraduate curriculum and strengthening the sciences, and raising the standards of its medical and law schools. Healy traveled the country, raising funds for the university, which helped support the construction of the university’s neo-Gothic flagship building that bears his name. Its clocktower, rising over a bluff on the Potomac, was the tallest structure in Washington when it was completed in 1879.

By 19th century racial classifications in America, Patrick Healy was a black man. Yet he largely evaded the legal, social, and economic deprivations that defined the lives of most African Americans. Healy and his siblings identified as white. And despite some of the Healys’ darker complexions “hiding in plain sight,” others went along with it—with help from the Catholic Church.

Patrick Healy was one of nine children born to Michael Healy, an Irish immigrant and a wealthy Georgia plantation owner. Patrick's mother, Eliza Clark, was a biracial enslaved woman and, legally, the property of Michael Healy. James O’Toole, a history professor at Boston College and author of Passing for White, Race, Religion, and the Healy Family, 1820-1920, describes Michael and Eliza’s relationship as a common-law marriage, at a time when Georgia prohibited all unions between whites and blacks, enslaved or free. Children born to enslaved women were considered to be property upon birth, and the state generally prohibited the emancipation of slaves, even upon the death of the slaveowner. In the eyes of the state of Georgia, the Healy children were inescapably black, to be forever enslaved. O’Toole writes, “The twisted logic of slavery depended on the maintenance of clear dividing lines slaves were black, blacks were slaves, and it had to be that way.”

Michael Healy, wanting more for his children, concluded “the only solution was to get his children out of Georgia." On a boat to New York in 1844, Healy met Father John Bernard Fitzpatrick, a Georgetown priest soon to become the Bishop of Boston, who was recruiting students for the newly established College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. This chance meeting would anchor the Healy children in the Christian tradition that would sustain them and conceal them from America’s racial caste system for the rest of their lives.

From the moment the four oldest Healy brothers matriculated at Holy Cross (two in its high school and two in its grammar school), they presented themselves to the world as white. To the faculty and students at Holy Cross, O'Toole writes, the Healys’ African ancestry, as evidenced by the darkercomplexions of the oldest and youngest of the brothers, James and Sherwood, “was plain for all to see,” yet everyone ignored it. Bishop Fitzpatrick, whose family regularly hosted the boys during holidays and whose sister took in the Healy’s sister, Martha, as a boarder, knew the family heritage.

Fitzpatrick, always a loyal advocate for the children, lamented in a letter years later, that it was “useless to recommend” Sherwood Healy for a plum post in Rome because “[h]e has African blood and it shews [sic] distinctly in his exterior.” Patrick was “fair skinned” compared to some of his brothers but O’Toole writes, “anyone who looked at some of the brothers could easily solve the racial riddle of all of them.”

Still, the risk that appearances might give away their conceit did not cause the boys to hide in the shadows at Holy Cross they were active in student life and distinguished themselves academically. James Healy graduated as Holy Cross’ first valedictorian. Patrick, a few years behind his brother, also placed first in his class.

While Michael Healy occasionally visited his sons at Holy Cross, a visit from their mother, Eliza, would have blown their cover and their notion of themselves. James Healy, in his diary, identifies as white, expressing his disapproval of the abolitionist cause and its potential “super-elevation of the negro,” seeing the negro as someone other than himself. Without commentary, James describes in his diary racial jokes over which he shared a laugh with his classmates.

Patrick Healy’s papers omit direct indications of how he racially identified, except that he told one of his Holy Cross mentors he was wounded when students circulated rumors about him and his brothers when he returned to the school later as a teacher, adding, “you know to what I refer.” Where James often committed to paper the racial attitudes of many of his contemporaries, Patrick appeared to withdraw into the cloistered world of the church, where he could avoid the messy business altogether. When James approached his graduation from Holy Cross in 1849, he likely spoke for all the Healys when we acknowledged in his diary the racial rebirth the Catholic church made possible for them: “Today, 5 years ago I entered this college. What a change. Then, I was nothing, now I am a Catholic.”

The boys never saw their mother again once they left for school, and they scarcely mention her in their letters. “To write a history of passing is to write a story of loss,” said historian Allyson Hobbs, author of A Chosen Exile, in an interview with NPR’s Code Switch podcast. The Healys would not straddle the fence of racial identity they would jump the fence and keep moving.

The Bible asks, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” To gain access to the priesthood, where they would renounce the world, the Healys had to navigate the world’s very real racism and renounce their ancestry. Jené Schoenfeld, an English professor at Kenyon College whose work addresses representations of “the mulatto” in American fiction and culture, said in an interview, "I am disinclined to judge those who chose to pass. Their lives were at stake, their livelihoods were at stake. I think a lot of people obviously would."

In the north, the Healys were not in any apparent danger of kidnapping and return to slavery. For one, people who knew nothing of their ancestry would not likely prey on them, precisely because they appeared white. Also, technically, the Healy boys were not fugitive slaves, says Carol Wilson, an historian at Washington College in Maryland. “Their father, their owner, has let them go free. That’s an important distinction… As far as the law is concerned, they’re Michael Healy’s property, and if Michael Healy wants to let his property do whatever, that’s the issue,” she says.

Return visits to Georgia presented complications, however, especially after both parents died within months of each other in 1850. Alive, Michael Healy, as a slaveowner, could vouch for his sons as “his property,” if authorities detained and questioned his children in Georgia. Nevertheless, historian Eric Foner wrote in an e-mail, “[Patrick Healy] would certainly be unwise to return to Georgia before the Civil War.” Since Georgia law forbade Healy from emancipating his children, they remained enslaved. At the same time, Michael Healy’s will implied his sons lived as free persons in New York, under a guardian residing in New York, making them eligible to inherit his estate, which included 49 enslaved persons. His friend in New York oversaw the will’s executors in Georgia and distributed the proceeds to the children. Meanwhile, Hugh Healy, the second-oldest brother, slipped into Georgia and brought the orphaned siblings up North. The Fugitive Slave Act, signed into law by President Millard Fillmore only weeks after Michael Healy’s death, would not touch the Healy children: they had no owner to pursue them and no one would question them now as white, Irish Catholics.

Unfortunately, when it came to America’s original sin, the sins of the Healy’s father did not entirely bypass the children. The frocked Healy children recognized continued ownership in human beings was not a good look for priests. According to their father’s will, the enslaved men, women, and children were to be hired out each year, which earned a handsome profit for the estate, until the children decided to sell the individuals. In 1852, when Patrick Healy was teaching at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, a fire destroyed Holy Cross’s Fenwick Hall, the college’s sole academic building, which also served as a dormitory and chapel. The school notes that, “Fundraising efforts to rebuild the damaged structure [had] languished” until 1854 when Patrick Healy, back at Holy Cross to teach in 1853, made a major donation to the capital campaign. That donation was his share of the family inheritance, largely derived from the sale of his family’s enslaved labor at auction.

After graduate studies and ordination in Europe, Healy joined Georgetown as a philosophy professor in 1866, immediately following the Civil War. He became dean soon thereafter. The Georgetown Jesuits were aware of Healy’s heritage but hid it from the school’s southern student body. “[T]he problem related to his background” came up several times as the Jesuits considered Healy among the candidates for a new college president. Yet, they could not overlook his merit, with the head of the Maryland Jesuits opining, “Clearly Healy is the most qualified.” When the sitting president died suddenly in 1873, Healy got the top job—acting at first Rome made the appointment permanent the following year.

Today, Georgetown proudly and openly refers to Healy as the first black president of a predominantly white university. He is also celebrated as the first American of African ancestry to earn a Ph.D. In his lifetime, Healy would have rejected these recognitions as he rejected the identity of black and African-American. “If they were not living as a black person, then I don't feel like we can celebrate them as a black first,” says Schoenfeld. That said, Healy will probably not drop off any lists of “black firsts” anytime soon.

The Georgetown Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, consisting of students, faculty, alumni and the descendants of Georgetown’s 272 enslaved persons, has challenged the university to confront this history, to educate the campus and the general public about it, and to make amends for it. Georgetown history professor Adam Rothman, who served on the working group, says, “The 1838 sale. encapsulates so many of the reasons why slavery was horrific..and it had a very tangible consequence for Georgetown itself, in that the proceeds for the down-payment for the sale went to pull the university out of debt.”

Had Healy been born in Maryland, he could have been sold along with the 272 individuals Georgetown President Thomas Mulledy sold in 1838. Instead, it’s because he was born mixed-race, on a Georgia plantation, to a wealthy Irish father who looked after his welfare and paid tuition for several children to attend Catholic schools, that the brilliant Patrick Healy could become the Jesuit university’s most celebrated President. The black lives held in bondage by the Jesuits in 1838 did not matter to Mulledy. Healy and his brothers, however, did matter to him.

After Mulledy left Georgetown, he joined Holy Cross as president, where he admitted the Healy brothers in its first class and mentored them, knowing their background. Michael Healy, in his will, had even appointed Mulledy to be the boys’ guardian should his first pick pre-decease him. Perhaps, the Healys’ black ancestry did not matter to the Catholic Church because the Church was still securing its foothold in America it was fighting nativist hostility to Irish and German Catholic immigrants, and welcomed adherents.

The Healys were great benefactors of Holy Cross, where the family members who enrolled became high-profile ambassadors for the Church (James Healy would become the Bishop of Portland, Maine, and Sherwood, the rector of the Boston Cathedral the sisters, educated later in Canada, would become nuns and, one, a Mother Superior of a convent.) The Healys were as tight with the Boston’s Catholic leadership at this pivotal time as anyone could be: their mentor at Holy Cross, George Fenwick, was the brother of the school’s founder and the Bishop of Boston Benedict Fenwick. They took to calling him, “Dad,” while they called their biological father the more formal “Father.”

The sin of Jesuit slavery did, indeed, pass on to Patrick Healy’s generation but unlike Mulledy, Healy did not transact a slave sale for the express purpose of benefiting Holy Cross. Nonetheless, it was Healy’s inheritance, amassed from forced labor, that saved Holy Cross from demise, just as Mulledy’s sale brought Georgetown back from the brink. It was also during Healy’s tenure as Georgetown president that the school embraced the Confederate “Lost Cause” in the same spirit it honored Union loyalty in its adoption of the school colors, the blue and the gray. These southern sympathies thus sealed, Georgetown was late among the country’s all-white universities to admit its first black student, which happened in 1950.

But Healy is not Mulledy. Healy was never free, even as a “freedman,” after the Civil War. No matter how high he built Healy Hall, he could never slip the surly bonds of America’s caste system. Were Healy to ever reveal his past at this institution, all would come tumbling down. The Church who stood by him privately might leave him publicly. Worse, in Jim Crow America, he would be consigned to second-class citizenship. For as long as he lived, the past threatened his present. As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

When Healy died, he was laid to rest in Georgetown’s Jesuit Community Cemetery, where Mulledy was buried 50 years earlier. Outside Georgetown’s gates, Washington’s cemeteries were segregated.

Editor's note, September 9, 2020: Due to an editing error, this article originally claimed that Georgetown was offering free admission to descendants of the enslaved laborers sold by Mulledy. They are offering legacy status to those applicants.


Guinea worm: You don’t always need a cure

In 1986, an estimated 3.5 million people in Africa and Asia had guinea worm disease, a parasitic disease that causes painful blisters, swelling, bacterial infection, and disability. But by 2019, only 54 cases were detected, even without a cure or a vaccine. That drop didn’t happen by chance — it was the result of a decades-long public health campaign that has nearly stamped out guinea worm for good.

By the 1980s, it was clear that researchers were nowhere near being able to develop an effective vaccine against Dracunculus medinensis, the parasite that causes the disease. Since it’s transmitted through contaminated drinking water, public health experts knew local efforts focused on clean water would pay dividends. The Carter Center, the NGO founded by Jimmy Carter, took the lead, working with ministries of health in affected countries and helping establish community-based programs.

Today, village volunteers — people who educate their peers about the parasite’s transmission, teach others how to filter their water, and help surveil cases — are at the heart of the approach. They have proven particularly effective at helping address local practices and superstitions that can make it hard for international public health workers to make inroads.

It could be years before researchers dial in a strategy for creating effective vaccines against parasites of any kind. George Washington University microbiologist Jeffrey Bethony, PhD, who is working on vaccines against hookworms and other parasites, has called vaccines against parasitic infections “the ultimate challenge.” But by the time researchers are able to create a vaccine against D. medinensis, they may not need to. An estimated 80 million cases of guinea worm are thought to have been averted due to the public health campaign, and eradication no longer seems just possible, but imminent. The takeaway: We still need a cure for Covid-19, but education and accurate information can empower people to limit its spread in the meantime. Even if a cure isn’t found right away, it’s possible to stem its spread through effective education.


How an Enslaved African Man in Boston Helped Save Generations from Smallpox - HISTORY

Smallpox was a terrible disease.

“Your body would ache, you’d have high fever, a sore throat, headaches and difficulty breathing,” says epidemiologist René Najera, editor of the History of Vaccines website.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

“On top of that, you’d get a horrible disfiguring rash over your entire body – pustules filled with pus on your scalp, feet, throat, even lungs – and over the course of a couple of days, they would dry out and start falling off,” says Najera.

With the rise in global trade and the spread of empires, smallpox ravaged communities around the world. Around a third of adults infected with smallpox would be expected to die, and eight out of 10 infants. In the early 18th Century, the disease is calculated to have killed some 400,000 people every year in Europe alone.

Ports were particularly vulnerable. The 1721 smallpox outbreak in the US city of Boston wiped out 8% of the population. But even if you lived, the disease had lasting effects, leaving some of the survivors blind and all of them with nasty scars.

“When the scabs fell off, they’d leave you pockmarked and disfigured – some people committed suicide rather than live with the scarring,” Najera says.

Treatments ranged from the useless to the bizarre (and also useless). They included placing people in hot rooms, or sometimes cold rooms, abstaining from eating melons, wrapping patients in red cloth and – according to one 17th-Century medic giving “12 bottles of small beer” to the patient every 24 hours. The intoxication might have at least dulled the pain.

There was, however, one genuine cure. Known as inoculation, or variolation, it involved taking the pus from someone suffering with smallpox and scratching it into the skin of a healthy individual. Another technique involved blowing smallpox scabs up the nose.

First practiced in Africa and Asia before being eventually brought to Europe in the 18th Century, and North America by an enslaved man named Onesimus, inoculation usually resulted in a mild case of the disease. But not always. Some people contracted full-on smallpox and all those inoculated became carriers of the disease, inadvertently passing it on to people they met. A better solution was needed.

Before Jenner's involvement, the treatments for smallpox ranged from the useless to the bizarre (Credit: Getty Images)


Watch the video: Δρ Μουρούτης 12-11-2011 Μουσική. Ευλογία ή κατάρα, Λάρισα (January 2022).