The Puritan Minister, The Pox, and How Much We Assume is Wrong

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.

13 thoughts on “The Puritan Minister, The Pox, and How Much We Assume is Wrong”

  1. Good show, Ginny.

    One question, though. Why should people inoculated suffer far less adverse effects from the Pox?

  2. Great article. There is no conflict between real science and faith. The rub comes when science attempts to move into philosophical areas.

  3. Actually, the “real rub” is when “science” attempts to “move into” the political areas.

    The truth is that the real antagonism here is not versus science and faith, per se, but between “normal” civilization, and Leftists who would hijack the “science realm” in order to discredit a major obstacle to their project to destruction and debasement: That Judeo-Christian heritage that is the foundation of Western Civilization and the rich soil of its great accomplishments. Like the slander of the Puritans, most anti christian propaganda is quickly exposed once light is shown on them.

    Lastly this is not a case of anyone “moving into” Philosophy but rather a case of “moving into” Theology and broader culture.

  4. Fill me in. Were they innoculating with smallpox itself or were they doing cowpox after Jenner?

    I had heard about using smallpox for the innoculation, and if that is all you had, probably better than nothing, but talk about dangerous and that could give some credence to the critics.

    Live virus is actually the Gold Standard of immunization. Jenner’s big contribution was the use of a related live virus, the cowpox, which was in relative terms harmless. Salk’s big contribution was a vaccine made from a dead virus — this is a big deal because of its high safety in dealing with an illness with serious morbidity if you don’t die from it, ending up terribly impaired.

    It was not known whether Salk’s vaccine is permanent in some sense or would need recurrent booster shots. Sabin’s live-virus polio vaccine, I guess that is done by breeding generations of polio until it is not dangerous, is supposed to give permanent immunity, but it is not completely safe. I am told that innoculated with Sabin’s vaccine, you actually get a case of polio that is contagious — some people consider that a feature and not a bug in terms of spreading the effect of the vaccine around. But there was a case of a bad batch of Salk vaccine early on, and a dad caught polio from his innoculated child and was seriously affected — the older you are, the more serious the effects of polio for some reason.

    I remember getting the Salk injections, and I remember a new pediatrician convincing my skeptical mom that I got the Sabin sugar cube. Seem to be that Mom was not thrilled about this, and for all I know that already back in the 70’s she was informed on vaccine controversies. On the other hand, if I was already immunized with the Salk shot, how is it that the Sabin sugar cube had any effect — wouldn’t the live virus of that innoculation been wiped out right away?

  5. Well, I am not a scientist.
    But can say: a) it was live (they actually took it from the inflammation on someone with it and then placed it in small cuts – usually in the arm (I think). b) it was dangerous. Jonathan Edwards was vaccinated (in part as a model to the Princeton students, where he had just assumed the presidency); he died. There were deaths among those Boylston treated – no modern pharmaceutical company could stay afloat with the odds then. But the percentage of deaths was much, much smaller. This is where the record keeping of Boylston was important.

  6. This story illustrates a principle I see acted out again and again: Humility is the key to success in any difficult undertaking, whether theological, scientific, or political. It reinforces all the best aspects of intellect and human nature, and ameliorates all our worst tendencies. Pride does just the opposite.

    I can certainly find much to disagree with in the ideas of the Puritans and Mather. But when they were true to their principles — Humility first among them — they usually ended up doing the right thing, even when the particular science or theology they used as justification was questionable.

  7. “There were deaths among those Boylston treated – no modern pharmaceutical company could stay afloat with the odds then.”

    That’s my point. It wasn’t a contest between the virtuous and scientific with the stupid and ignorant. Live virus smallpox innoculation was a demonstrably dangerous undertaking, even if the alternative of catching smallpox in the wild was even more dangerous. I don’t think you can assign the same motives and values to the opponents as you could, say, the people ginning up the Thimeserol controversy or the folks letting their kids catch and spread whooping cough.

  8. Very interesting post….I will definitely be purchasing this book. Another book that addresses the huge impact of imported diseases on exisiting Western Hemishere cultures is “1491” by Charles Mann, a book that will make you think, challenging basic historical assumptions.

  9. I have a chapter in my book on this topic.

    Why should people inoculated suffer far less adverse effects from the Pox?

    There are a number of reasons.
    1. Cowpox is quite mild and it was Jenner’s observation that milkmaids, who contracted the disease from milking cows, did not develop smallpox when epidemics occurred.
    2. Many “innoculators” were not physicians. They used smallpox, a practice that was very controversial. They opened “airing houses” to keep innoculated patients away from the public until they were no longer infectious.
    3. The mortality rate of innoculation was about 2%.
    This was kept low by the practice of “removes.” It was observed that the disease became attenuated when it was passed from person to person in a series. The most mild case was chosen to innoculate, then the most mild case of those innoculated, and so on.

    Catherine the Great had her family innoculated after 10,000 removes, basically all her servants.

    The Spanish transferred vaccination, using cowpox, to the new world by selecting a group of children who had not had smallpox and innoculating two at a time. When the pox appeared on the two children, that material was used to innoculate two more, and so on through the voyage until they reached South America.

    Smallpox was NOT used as a weapon against Indians. There is no evidence that contaminated blankets and the like were ever used. The story originated in colonial times with an allegation that the English used it against the French and Indians.

    The Indians were exquisitely susceptible because they had never been exposed. The same thing happened to the Polynesians in the 19th century, except the disease was measles.

    The Indians gave as good as they got, though, as the early explorers brought syphilis back with them where it devastated Europe.

  10. Thanks Michael. I knew the scientists would have something important to say. Fenn does discuss the British infecton of a handkerchief during the French & Indian war. Of course, blankets spread the disease – but not surprisingly, not knowing the disaster that awaited, Indians boarding ships on which everyone had died from small pox, took the blankets back home. In 1721, unfortunately, they didn’t know about the cow pox/small pox, so they were using live small pox.

    And Paul, I would never call Franklin stupid – nor Douglass. Indeed, I think Franklin got most things quite right. But I think Setbit understands – pride got in the way. They weren’t willing to look at facts, at research. Pride generally does get in the way of open-mindedness. That was true then and is true now. It is not evil to close your mind nor to protect your turf. It isn’t, however, admirable.

    Certainly, it is hard to blame a public then or now: when faced with a devastating disease (either deathly like small pox or debilitating like autism), it is reasonable to want an answer, to trust an authority, to fear the unknown. That doesn’t mean, in the end, Mather and Boylston weren’t more willing to look at the facts than was Douglass. And having even an amateurish and 18th century bomb lobbed through a window indicates Mather’s courage.

  11. There’s a modern parallel. Before the rubella vaccine became available, parents sometimes deliberately exposed their adolescent daughters to the disease. (It was then called German measles by almost everyone in the US.)

    The parents hoped to prevent miscarriages, and birth defects in future grandchildren. Rubella is generally a mild disease — except for unborn babies.

  12. Joseph,
    I’m even less a theologian than a scientist, but (as I suspect you know) both the Pilgrims and the Puritans subscribed to John Calvin’s beliefs, including predestination, summarized in tulip. However, they were unlikely to see the question as you posed it. Jonathan Edwards (more a contemporary of the youthful apprentice Benjamin Franklin, since only 3 years separated their births) became the American theologian who grappled with those issues. An imagination that can encompass an eternity created & ruled by an omniscient and omnipotent God is not likely to see the issue in terms of “or.” Notice, in this controversy, fatalism was the argument not of the ministers but of the doctors.

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