Select Page



By William H. Benson

October 23, 2003

     The minister at the North Church in Boston, Cotton Mather, received his first printed copy of Magnalia Christi Americana on October 29, 1702, and on the same day he discovered that his 8-year-od daughter had smallpox.  Soon all four of his children had the disease, and it was a miracle that they all survived, but then on December 1st, his wife died, but probably of breast cancer. 

     Mather remarried Elizabeth Hubbard, and they produced six more children.  But then the measles epidemic that arrived in Boston in late October of 1713 struck the Mather family hard, taking Elizabeth first, then their maid, then the twins—Eleazar and Martha—only two weeks old, and finally their two-year-old daughter Jerusha.  Cotton was overwhelmed with grief.

     As if that was not enough, yet another smallpox epidemic swept across Boston in April of 1721, but this time Cotton Mather decided to fight back.  He and Dr. Boylston promoted a new technology that Mather had heard about, an inoculation with serum draw from another’s lesions.  Mather’s son Samuel, who was born after the previous epidemic, begged for the new treatment, and although he suffered afterwards, he lived.

     However, James Franklin, the editor of a new Boston newspaper, the Courant, sensed that popular sentiment was set against Mather’s inoculation, and so he shouted in defiance against the treatment.  For months as the epidemic ended up killing over eight hundred people in Boston, young Franklin screamed out a series of editorials against Mather’s inoculation.  When the two men happened to meet on the street, they exchanged harsh words, but it was Mather who was later proven right because the treatment seemed to work; few of those treated died.

     Years later in a kind of turn around, James Franklin’s younger brother Benjamin was then living in Philadelphia when his four-year-old son, Francis, came down with smallpox, and within two weeks he was gone.  Benjamin was never able to relieve himself of the guilt that he felt because he had not inoculated his son, even though by then, he believed in its effectiveness.

     The worst biological disaster in human history occurred in the Americas when Columbus and the other Europeans arrived with their diseases, especially smallpox.  The native population in the Americas had had no experience with this disease, and thus they had not developed any immunity. Any numbers or percentages as to how many died would only be guesses, but it was enormous.

     “The Europeans were able to conquer America not because of their military genius, or their religious motivation, or their ambition, or their greed.  They conquered it by waging unpremeditated biological warfare.”

     In 1796 a scientist Edward Jenner discovered that women who milked cows infected with cowpox did not seem to ever get smallpox.  He withdrew material from a cowpox lesion and inoculated a young boy who, when infected with smallpox, did not get the disease.  He called his serum a vaccine, from the Latin word vaccinus, meaning of or from cows.

     Unlike influenza which is found also in chickens, turkeys, and pigs, besides humans, it is only the humans who can suffer from smallpox.  And once contracted there is no cure or even a specific treatment for smallpox.  It is better never to get it, because the mortality rate in the worst variety is 20 to 40%. 

     The last recorded case of smallpox occurred in 1977 in Somolia.  It was a human triumph that the World Health Organization eradicated smallpox from the globe that year.  Today the virus exists in two laboratories: one in Atlanta Georgia and the other in Novosibirsk, Russia, and in early 2002 WHO officials voted against destroying the remaining stock of the virus, choosing instead to retain it for research purposes.  But in the wrong hands those vials would have serious consequences, a weapon of mass destruction, for the mass of population today is not immunized. 

     If alive today, Cotton Mather would feel vindicated, and he would think that our good fortune to have a vaccination.