Know Your History
Did You Know that inoculation was introduced to America by a slave?
Our heritage and our history are inextricably intertwined, and dismissing the former delegitimizes the latter. History is complicated and confounding, but we must dig deep to find the truth, abolish misinformation and lies, and find the soul of our nation.
As a member led union, we’re doing our best to lead this fight by sharing stories like the following.
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. One of a thousand people of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony, in 1706 Onesimus was bequeathed as a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather by his congregation.
As a slaveowner, Mather is judged to have been better than most, and his slaves were free to share their knowledge. Eventually, Mather learned from Onesimus about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. As Onesimus explained it to him, 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, thus making them immune.
Not surprisingly, the practice of purposefully infecting a healthy individual was considered heresy at the time, even coming from a white man. (Mather was quickly given credit for originating the idea.) But when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721, Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure and over 240 people were inoculated. With the overwhelming majority of the public opposed politically, religiously, and medically to the experiment both in the United States and abroad, Mather and Boylston’s lives and livelihoods were uncertain at best, despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox.
By the time of the Revolutionary War 50 years later, Onesimus’ traditional African practice was regularly being used to inoculate American soldiers, thereby introducing the concept—and acceptance—of inoculation to the United States.