Innovation and The History Vaccines

Matt Ridley, author of How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom writes on the history of vaccines and how this scientific breakthrough was brought to the attention of the Western World not by scientists and professors, but by a black slave and woman. Ridley also discusses the fierce opposition they faced:

At a time when the miraculous success of vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 has transformed the battle against the pandemic, it is fitting to recall that the general idea behind vaccination was brought to the attention of the western world, not by brilliant and privileged professors, but by a black slave and a woman.

His name was Onesimus and he lived in Boston, as the property of Cotton Mather, a well-known puritan preacher. Her name was Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, the literary wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople.

Some time around 1715 Onesimus seems to have told Mather that back in West Africa people were in the habit of deliberately infecting children with a drop of “juice of smallpox” from a survivor, thus making them immune. Mather then came across a report to the Royal Society in London from an Italian physician, Emmanuel Timoni, working in the Ottoman court in Constantinople, which described the same practice in combating smallpox. The Ottomans had got the idea from either China or Africa.

Six years later, in April 1721, when smallpox reached Boston in a ship called the Seahorse, and efforts to quarantine its crew proved in vain, Mather wrote to 14 doctors begging them to try inoculation. Thirteen ignored him but one, Zabdiel Boylston, did not. On 26 June 1721, almost 300 years ago, Boylston deliberately scratched the skin of his six year old son with a needle dipped in the pus from a smallpox survivor’s spots. He then did the same “variolation” to his slave and his slave’s two-year-old son. Imagine how brave, even foolhardy, this act was.

All three survived after mild bouts of the disease. Boylston then began inoculating other volunteers, and by November he had variolated 247 people. Six of these died. On 25 November he inoculated 15 members of Harvard University. The epidemic was by then raging in Boston, over 400 people having died in October alone.

News of Boylston’s experimental treatment caused fury among the Boston townspeople. Doctors denounced him. “Some have been carrying about instruments of inoculation, and bottles of poisonous humor, to infect all who were willing to submit to it. Can any man infect a family in the morning, and pray to God in the evening that the distemper will not spread?” thundered one. The Boston city council summoned Boylston to account for his crime and the mob descended on him. He hid in a closet for nearly two weeks to escape lynching. It is not easy being an innovator.

At almost the same time in Britain, a brave woman pioneer, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was introducing variolation to London society, having learnt of the practice while in Constantinople as the wife of the ambassador. She too was the subject of fierce denunciation.

Read the rest at Warp, on The unexpected history and miraculous success of vaccines.