The Smallpox Debates

Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James started America’s first fiercely independent, antiestablishment newspaper, the Boston Courant, in 1721. At that time, defying authority in Boston meant going against the Puritan clergy in general, and the Mathers family in particular. James took an antiestablishment stand with the Courant‘s very first edition, arguing against Cotton Mather in one of the hottest debates around.

Unfortunately, he took the wrong side.

Smallpox had periodically devastated Massachusetts ever since its founding; a 1677 outbreak wiped out 12 percent of the population. During the 1702 epidemic, three of Cotton Mather’s children were stricken, but survived. Mather, who had trained as a physician before becoming a preacher, began studying the disease.

He was introduced to the practice of inoculation by his black slave, who had a scar from being inoculated in Africa. It turned out that in parts of Africa, inoculation was already a standard procedure. When a new wave of the disease hit Boston in 1721, Mather (having greatly evolved since the days of the Salem witch trials) wrote a letter to Boston’s ten practicing physicians, detailing the process of inoculating, and urging them to adopt the practice.

Most of the doctors rejected the idea, and so, as a matter of principle, did Franklin’s newspaper. With little justification other than to take a stand against the Puritan establishment, the Courant’s first edition contained two essays attacking Mather’s proposal. This began an escalating public dispute that sold papers for weeks, and got the Courant off to a very healthy start.

(Isaacson 22-24)


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