Innoculations or “Shots”, as they are commonly known, was introduced to America by slaves and influenced by African cultures.
Early travelers to Ethiopia report that variolation was practiced by the Amhara and Tigray peoples. The first European to report this was Nathaniel Pearce, who noted in 1831, that it was performed by a debtera who would collect “a quantity of matter” from a person with the most sores from smallpox, then he “cuts a small cross with a razor in the arm” of his subject and put “a little of the matter” into the cut which was afterwards bound up with a bandage.
The knowledge of inoculating oneself against smallpox seems to have been known to West Africans, more specifically the Akan.
Few details are known about the birth of Onesimus, but it is assumed he was born in Africa in the late seventeenth century before eventually landing in Boston.
Then a slave, Onesimus explained the inoculation procedure to Cotton Mather during the 18th century; he reported to have gotten the knowledge from Africa.
Onesimus was one of about a thousand persons of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony in the early 1700s, one-third of them in Boston. Many were indentured servants with rights comparable to those of white servants, though an increasing number of blacks–and blacks only–were classified as chattel and bound as slaves for life.
Onesimus was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather from his congregation in 1706.
Onesimus told Mather about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa.
By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune.
The practice is documented in America as early as 1721, when Zabdiel Boylston, at the urging of Cotton Mather, successfully inoculated two slaves and his own son.
Mather, a prominent Boston minister, had heard a description of the African practice of inoculation from his Sudanese slave, Onesimus, in 1706, and later from Timoni’s report to the Royal Society, but had been previously unable to convince local physicians to attempt the procedure.
Considered extremely dangerous at the time, Mather convinced Dr. Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated.
Bostonians and other Americans nonetheless adopted the African practice of inoculation in future smallpox outbreaks, and variolation remained the most effective means of treating the disease until the development of vaccination by Edward Jenner in 1796.
The effectiveness of the procedure was proven when, of the nearly three hundred people Boylston inoculated during the outbreak, only six died, whereas the mortality rate among those who contracted the disease naturally was one in six. Boylston traveled to London in 1724. There he published his results and was elected to the Royal Society in 1726.
Following this initial success, Boylston began performing inoculations throughout Boston, despite much controversy and at least one attempt upon his life.
Opposed politically, religiously and medically in the United States and abroad, public reaction to the experiment put Mather and Boylston’s lives in danger despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox.
Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States.
Sources: Herbert, Eugenia W. “Smallpox Inoculation in Africa.” Journal of African History 16 (1975).Mather, Cotton. Diary (1912). Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984)
By: Darwin Campbell