The Puritans begin each semester. Their beliefs and modes of thought foreshadow much that comes after. Their emphasis upon the word – understood, translated, interpreted – leads to reasoned argument; they do personal interpretation and respect biblical authority, they do introspection and encourage humility. These naturally lead to experimentation, scientific skepticism. How a Puritan – Cotton Mather – and a figure now seen as personifying the scientific method and American Enlightenment – Benjamin Franklin – reacted to the 1721 small pox epidemic in Boston is the subject of the short, quite readable The Pox and the Covenant by Tony Williams. The controversy over inoculation split the town, undercut the old traditions, and show us the universals that moved them and now move us. Reason, pride, passion, feeling for our fellows entered into a controvrsy which also challenges our assumptions, our sense of who Cotton Mather was and who Benjamin Franklin was.
The battle set authorities – scientific and religious – against one another. William Douglass, the most credentialed Boston doctor, countered Boylston, one of the most innovative of the American-trained practitioners. More important to our understanding of the period, perhaps, and to my lit class, it also set Cotton Mather (with his father Increase), the leading Puritan ministers, scholars and authorities of their day, against the Franklin brothers. The brilliant Benjamin was a mere apprentice but already the witty author of the Dogood letters. His brother, James, found that encouraging and exacerbating the controversy increased the popularity of the New England Courant, their new paper: what the Iran hostage crisis was for ABC’s nightly report, this battle was for the Frankllins.
Small pox – what it did to the indigenous people, how patients were treated, its effect on society – altered American history as much as any war. A book that discusses in mind-numbing detail small pox as scourge is Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn. The devastation that preceded the early English migration wiped out large percentages of the native population; it was less deadly to first generation Puritans because many came with immunity. It remained deadly to Indians and became deadly to those separated from Europe for a generation or more, who had not experienced its ravages – and thus become immunized.
Williams’ background is American Studies; mine is lit. I am somewhat curious what the real scientists on this blog think of the book (if they have read it). It certainly seems popularized, but it lays out the controversy clearly. And it gives us insight into that period – as the seventeenth century became the eighteenth and Enlightenment thinking permeated religious as well as political and economic theories.
Cotton Mather first learned of the efficacy of inoculation from an African slave. (Williams notes that Mather’s insistence upon the education and conversion of slaves, as well as their equality before God, led him to treat Onesimus’s description with respect.) Mather surveyed other Africans and heard similar stories. He was further convinced by an article in Philosophical Transactions (loaned him by the very William Douglass, a cosmopolitan Boston physician, who became his adversary). Dr. Emanuel Timonius, a fellow of the Royal Society in Constantinople, described the practice in Turkey. Soliciting and printing studies from far flung correspondents, the London Royal Society richly nourished an enlarging scientific community. These descriptions reinforced Mather’s belief disease was spread by “animalcules” – an embryonic germ theory. He convinced one of the most accomplished of the American-trained physicians of the time, Zabdiel Boylston, that the process might work. This was amidst the chaos of the 1721 epidemic. Bostonians, seeing so many among them dying, felt panic. This is not always the most receptive of mind sets. And inoculaton is a scary (and dangerous) procedure.
Douglass was a solid (and as he was quite proudly aware) credentialed scientist; his training was European and challenging. However, he was adamantly opposed to inoculation (apparently neither looking into the experience of Boylston’s patients nor the literature). Decades later, he would change his mind and become a practitioner himself. In 1721, however, he argued that insufficient care was being taken by a doctor he disparaged. And, further, that the process should not be considered seriously since it had been discovered and promoted by Africans and Muslims. His religious argument was fatalistic – obviously this scourge was God’s judgment. Indeed, he had many arguments. Mather and Boylston countered that God gave man reason to use and saving others’ lives was certainly God’s intention. And of course the great argument: it worked. The Franklins took delight in harassing those with power and encouraged controversy; soliciting papers that opposed inoculation, they found sarcasm & satire sold, as did hyperbole. Stoking the fire and encouraging opponents like Douglass developed a market for their fledgling newspaper.
Those of us familiar with contemporary debates on vaccinations, global warming, and various other controversies are struck again by the continuity of human nature. Douglass may have loaned Mather the journal earlier, but his arguments while partially over method, were assertions of authority. Boylston was a provincial; he was not. Turf protection can be the aim of authority. Mather demanded and generally was given the respect due one of the most intellectual and thoughtful ministers of the time; he was also, of course, a Mather. Pride (apportioned in varying amounts to Douglass, Boylston, Mather, the Franklin brothers) blurred reasoning. So did prejudice: Mather believed that he should be given more due as an authority & he was given to self-dramatization. However, the arguments from Douglass & the Franklins were often ad hominem and racist.
The Puritans prepared the ground for individualism, independent thinking, and the use of the scientific method. Some of them were scientists, by any definition of their time or ours. I am not. But I’ve come to respect their rigorous pursuit of knowledge and find their sense of the unity of experience and faith, analysis and observation powerful. Their respect for the truth ruled out ad hominem arguments – a rigor we seldom see today. Certainly, our celebrity-fed objections to vaccination today means we haven’t learned what Cotton Mather knew and Benjamin Franklin came to know – we need habitual patterns of thinking that encourage rationality. Our passion & pride are obstacles. Cotton Mather, willing to take on the anger directed at a process he firmly believed could save lives, appears as a man who risked status (and lost the core consensus regarding his authority). He was a hero; Douglass, the other physicians in town, the Franklins, all won – inoculations were forbidden. But Mather housed and Boylston inoculated those who chose that path – and these were saved when a large percentage of those who got small pox “the natural way” did not. Mather went against man’s law, firmly believing that saving lives was God’s law. And the risks were real: as Bostonians were whipped up by the pontifications of Douglass and the wit of the Franklins, the responses turned nasty. In the second year of the outbreak, an ineffectual bomb was thrown through a window in Mather’s home late at night. Death was averted when the fuse was knocked from the explosive as it hit the window.
Williams argues that the great loser in the controversy was the power of the covenant and respect for the church. Mather had risked his prestige on the importance of these inoculations in a controversy that moved out of his sphere of respect (not of knowledge, for Mather’s understanding of science put him at the forefront of his time.) On the other hand, the process itself won. Both Douglass and Benjamin Franklin came around to be eloquent advocates. They must also have realized their initial positions had consequences. Mather battled with himself, worried when it came close to home. But his son, reading his father’s arguments and fearing small pox, wanted the procedure. Mather thought about it, consulted his father, but chose to have it performed on the two children born too late to have been immunized by the last great outbreak. They lived. Franklin, on the other hand, poignantly, notes in his Autobiography that one of the great errata of his life was not inoculating his son, who died at 5 from small pox. These consequences are likely to have given Mather more comfort – and Franklin less – than the battle waged in public. In the public arena, certainly many lived because of inoculations and many died who might have been saved if the inoculations had been broadly instituted (or at least legal).
Shannon’s much more expert arguments for vaccinations have sometimes stirred the comments on this blog. And I’d like to note some interesting contemporary works that buttress his position: Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine. Another is Paul Offit’s Deadly Choices. Both demonstrate our quite understandable fear of and the strength of the argument for vaccines.
Here is a passage from the conclusion of Williams’ text that summarizes:
It was a Puritan minister and one lone doctor who stood up to the medical establishment and boldly continued the practice in the face of vehement medical and popular opposition. They defended their experiments with religious arguments steeped in the eighteenth-century natural law consistent with Puritan belief. But their arguments were primarily that inoculation was a sound and efficacious medical practice, and they followed the scientific method to test their theory.
It was the hidebound and haughty Dr. William Douglass who fought the practice tooth and nail, and a man of God who bravely proved that inoculation worked and saved many lives. Cotton Mather scorned those who clung tenaciously to their scientific presuppositions and refused to examine new views. He once criticized a Florentine scientist who declined to look through Galileo’s telescope because “he was afraid that then his eyes would from ocular demonstrations, make him stagger concerning the truth of Aristotle’s principles, which he was resolved he would never call in question.”
Indeed, we cannot escape the overwhelming evidence from this dramatic story that Douglass and most of Boston’s physicians acted unscientifically throughout the entire contest. They refused to examine evidence, withheld scientific literature that contradicted their arguments, manufactured testimony that they probably knew was false, argued from racist premises, and used personal attacks to defeat their opponents. Contrarily, Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston examined the findings in scientific journals, confirmed them with those who knew about the procedure and tested the procedure repeatedly and successfully through experiments that proved their hypothesis. (208-209)
Admittedly, I have little scientific background but I wander into this area to better understand the literature I teach. 1) The writers of 1850 can only be fully understood in the context of what went before – just as they help us see patterns as we look back. The writers of 1721 can only be understood by understanding their times better. 2) I like the Puritans. I think they were remarkable. And this incident, like so many others, shows that we have more to learn than condemn in their views and practices. 3) Most of my students are convinced that Europeans arrived, practiced germ warfare in a horrendous pattern, and decimated the Indian population. I don’t want to think that is true, but, then, I suspect that some do. The tales of infected blankets are legion. Fenn puts much of that argument to rest. Williams is more narrowly focused, but appears to do so as well. He does note Franklin’s satiric jab at the Mathers – perhaps inoculated soldiers could be sent to infect the Indians. I hope reading satire literally is not the basis of this prevalent belief – if so it is yet more proof that we are failing to teach close reading – and many are failing to do it. 4) Most of my students think that religion and science have always been at odds. This prevents them from understanding and appreciating a good many of these early writers.