Once upon a time in Boston, Mass, they experienced the smallpox epidemic of 1721 (exactly 400-years ago) and an enslaved Black man named Onesimus shared a revolutionary method to prevent smallpox. However, when Onesimus suggested a potential way to keep people from getting sick, the white colonists were reluctant to undergo a medical procedure developed by or for Black people.
Smallpox entered the colonies on slave ships, transmitted by enslaved people who, in packed and unsanitary quarters, passed the disease along to one another and, eventually, to colonists at their destinations. One of those destinations was Massachusetts, which was a center of the early slave trade.
As sickness swept through the city, it killed hundreds in a time before there was a modern medical treatment or a robust understanding of infectious disease. Onesimus said that he “had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it…and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.”
The operation Onesimus referred to consisted of rubbing pus from an infected person into an open wound on the arm. Once the infected material was introduced into the body, the person who underwent the procedure was inoculated against smallpox. Although not medically considered a vaccination, which involves exposure to a less dangerous virus to provoke immunity, it did activate the recipient’s immune response and protected against the disease most of the time.
Boston’s lone physician supported the technique and inoculated willing Bostonians. Of the 242 people he inoculated, only six died—one in 40, as opposed to one in 7 deaths among the population of Boston who didn’t undergo the procedure. Eventually, smallpox vaccination was developed and became mandatory in Massachusetts.
Learn a little more about Onesimus as it relates to today’s current misinformation on the COVID vaccine from this 7-minute video by Dr. Rhonda Johnson.