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Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic that Changed America’s Destiny

by Tony Williams

Pub Date: April 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4022-3605-1
Publisher: Sourcebooks

A lively history of the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic, the first in America to feature inoculation.

During that time period, “inoculation” transferred the actual virus from a victim to the patient, producing mild, but occasionally serious, smallpox. Historian Williams (Hurricane of Independence: The Untold Story of the Deadly Storm at the Deciding Moment of the American Revolution, 2008) narrates through the lens of eminent Puritan minister Cotton Mather and Benjamin Franklin. Readers who think they know who championed this lifesaving advance are in for a jolt. The author delivers a history of Puritanism, emphasizing that most believers had no objection to the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment period. Mather was an enthusiastic naturalist. Elected to the British Royal Society, he corresponded with other members in London and throughout Europe. As the epidemic spread, he urged inoculation, but only one Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, took him up on it. Others denounced it. The dispute mushroomed, producing a flood of pamphlets, abusive newspaper essays, decrees forbidding inoculation (which Boylston ignored) and even an attempt on Mather’s life. Many attacks appeared in the New-England Courant published by James Franklin, whose younger brother, Benjamin, played a minor role. Some readers may skim extensive quotes from sermons, editorials and speeches teeming with personal attacks, rumors, anecdotes and appeals to religion. Ultimately, Mather’s opponents ignored evidence that Boylston’s inoculation worked, preferring to proclaim that it was useless, dangerous or a violation of God’s will.

A painless reminder that historical figures often become clichés. Now known as the epitome of Puritan intolerance, Mather had a genuine interest in science, unlike most doctors in 1721 Boston.