African-American contributions to medicine -- part 1 of 7

In honor of Black History Month, UNMC Today is highlighting the contributions of African-Americans in medicine. The seven-part series kicks off today with Onesimus, a black servant who contributed to the fight against smallpox.

African-American slave contributes to important discovery in colonial America

In Massachusetts, the Puritan minister Cotton Mather learned the principle of inoculation as a defense against smallpox from his black servant, Onesimus. During one of the periodic smallpox epidemics that swept the colonies, Onesimus told Mather, "Cut the skin, and put in a drop...no body have Small Pox any more." He then showed Mather the scar he had received. Traditional healers in Africa apparently had used smallpox inoculations for centuries, injecting a mild case of the disease as a protection against a fatal attack.

In 1721, Mather published the information he had received from Onesimus in Some Account of What Is Said of Inoculating or Transplanting the Small Pox. This was almost 30 years before Edward Jenner, the Englishman who is credited with the developing the smallpox vaccine, was born.

Most of the leading physicians of the time ridiculed Mather when he urged them to test the method described by Onesimus. But a doctor named Zabdiel Boyston tried it on his son and two of his slaves during the epidemic that swept Boston that same year. When it worked on them, Boylston inoculated another 241 people. Only six caught smallpox. (Thomas Jefferson tested a smallpox vaccine many years later by injecting 200 slaves, including 80 of his own. When none of them died, whites allowed themselves to be injected.)

The method Onesimus passed on to Boylston also was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War, saving many of them from the ravages of smallpox. (Taken from African American Healers by Clinton Cox).