Black History: Special Delivery!!


Onesimus was an enslaved African. He was owned by Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in Boston. His knowledge of traditional African healing practices helped to save many people from a small pox epidemic in 1721. Onesimus informed his owner about the centuries old inoculation procedure practiced in Africa. The process involved extracting material from the pustule of someone who was infected and scratching it into the skin of someone who was unaffected. The intentional introduction of the disease inoculated the person, providing them with immunity from the disease. For some, there was no reaction. In most other cases, a mild non fatal form of the disease occurred.

At the time, inoculation was considered to be very dangerous. However, Mather, was confident in the inoculation procedure that Onesimus taught him and convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to conduct an experiment with the inoculation procedure on his son and two slaves. The doctor would then go on to inoculate over 240 others. The inoculation process faced great skepticism and opposition in the U.S. and Europe. Mather and Boylston received death threats for promoting the procedure. However the positive results could not be refuted. 2% of those inoculated died, 15% of those not inoculated died from small pox. The procedure was rejected due largely in part to its origins as an African healing practice and the fact that a slave had recommended it.