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Boston Case Study

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Smallpox in Boston, 1722

A collection of pamphlets: containing the way and manner of inoculating the small-pox both in Britain and New-England (Dublin, 1722), title page.

This letter demonstrates the political and social challenges which the introduction of the new inoculation treatment had to face. It is clear from Worth’s pamphlet that the Irish publisher George Grierson (c.1680–1753), had written to Cumyng, asking him to send him ‘some Pamphlets relating to Inoculation or Ingraffing’ of smallpox, with the aim of publishing them in Dublin. The resulting text, which also incorporates Thomas Nettleton’s An Account of the Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox in a Letter to Dr William Whitaker, demonstrates the novelty of the inoculation procedure: as Cumyng says himself, it was early days yet and certainly too early to make definitive statements as to the long-term efficacy of inoculation. This publication also illustrates the Dublin-based printer and bookseller George Grierson’s eye for a topical pamphlet. It is one of the very few medical works printed in Dublin which were purchased by Worth.

A Narrative of the Method and Success of Inoculating the Small-Pox in New England. By Mr. Benj. Colman. With a Reply to The Objections made against it from Principles of Conscience. In a Letter from a Minister at Boston. To which is now prefixed, An Historical Introduction. By Daniel Neal, M.A. (Dublin: Printed by George Grierson, at the Two Bibles in Essex-Street, 1722).

The Introduction.

‘The following Papers were printed a few Months ago at Boston in New-England, where the Small-Pox raged the latter End of last Summer with a Malignity little inferior to the Plague itself; for out of fifteen or sixteen thousand, which is the Number of the Inhabitants of that Town at present, there died throughout the whole Month of October, no less than one hundred a Week. The Distemper began about Midsummer, and not having visited the Town for nineteen Years before, the People were quickly in a Consternation; Trade was at a stand, the Churches were unfrequented, the general Assembly and Courts of Judicature, removed to distant Places, and All that were in Circumstances endeavour’d to fly from the Infection: In this melancholy Situation of Affairs, one of the Ministers publish’d an Address to the Physicians of the Town, recommending the new Method of Inoculating the Small-Pox, as publish’d some Years ago among the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, but they rejected the Proposal, and the Writer was rewarded with the Insults of the People.We have no certain Account in History of the Inventor of this Method; but Dr. Pylarini, Venetian Consul at Smyrna, says it was first discovered in that part of Greece call’d Thessaly, from thence brought to Constantinople; that it was practised only among the lower sort of People ‘till the Year 1701, when the Small-Pox being very mortal in the City, a great many Noble Families among the Greeks submitted to it; but the Turks ascribing all events to Fate, for that Reason refus’d to come into it.

Dr. Timoni Physician at Constantinople in his Letter to the Royal Society dated December 1713, adds that the Method of Inoculating the Small-Pox had been introduc’d into Constantinople about forty Years before, by the Circassians, Georgians, and other Inhabitants of Asia; and that for the last eight Years it had been practised with such Success upon some thousands of Persons of all Ages, Sexes, and Constitutions, that not one of them had dy’d, tho’ at the same time the Distemper was so malignant, that half the Persons who were seiz’d with it in the ordinary Way, miscarried.

‘Tis but very lately that this Practice has been introduced into these parts of Europe, the first Example among us was in April last, when the Lady Wortely Montague sent for Mr. Maitland, who had been Surgeon to the Honourable Wortely Montague, Esq; when he was Ambassador at the Ottoman Port, and acquainted him with her Resolutions of having the Small-Pox inoculated on her Daughter, an Infant of about four or five Years old; Mr. Maitland had perform’d the Operation on her only Son, about 4 Years before at Constantinople with such Success, that the Lady was resolv’d to submit her Daughter to it: He accordingly engrafted the Small-Pox in both her Arms; the Child continued easy and well ‘till the tenth Night, except a few little Spots and Flushings, but the next Morning the Small-Pox appear’d, ripen’d and went off in a few Days, the Child being so well as to play about the Room all the while.…

‘Tis certain however, that upon the Credit of some of the foremention’d Relations, Dr Boylston one of the Physicians of Boston ventur’d to introduce the Inoculation, into that Town about Midsummer last….

Dr Boylston was insulted as he walked the Streets; some of his Neighbours threatned to bring an Indictment of Felony against him, for carrying the Infection from part of the Town to the other; and at length, the Justices of the Town, and the Select Men, summoned him before them; and having severaly reprimanded him for his Rashness, forbad him to proceed; it being the general Opinion at that Time, that the Inoculation wou’d prove the Fore-runner of the Plague.

But to destroy the Credit of the New Method more effectually there was published about the same Time in the Boston News-Letter, and indecent Satire, wherein the Author, after having inveighed bitterly against the Inoculation, calling it Wicked and Felonious, and comparing it to the Infusion of the most venomous poison into the Blood; at length refers the case to the Divines, calling upon them to answer the following Question, Whether the trusting more to the groundless Contrivances of Men, than to our Preserver in the ordinary Course of Nature, be consistent with that Devotion and Subjection we owe to the All-wise Providence of God Almighty? Six of the Divines had the courage to give a publick Answer to this Question, not much to the Satisfaction of the Enquirer: But they fared no better than the Doctor, for after this, they were insulted in the Streets, and were hardly safe in their own Houses. The affair of the Innoculation became at length a Party Cause, the Governor and the Court declaring on one Side, and the Country on the other: And ‘tis incredible (says my Correspondent) to imagine, how much the Affections of the honest and sober People of the Town were alienated from their Ministers, only for their attempts to save their Lives.

But the Doctor, being thus supported by the Divines, resolved to proceed in his Practice, notwithstanding the Menaces of the Justices, and Select Men of the Town, and the number of his Patients encreas’d so fast, that by the end of September, about eighty had pass’d under the Operation, and all recovered but one, who had manifestly taken the Infection the common Way before.

All that have writ upon the Subject of Inoculating the Small-Pox, agree in the Method of performing the Operation, which is thus: The Variolous Matter is obtained from a young Person of a healthy Constitution, who has the Small-Pox of the distinct King, by pricking some of the Tubercules with a Needle, about the thirteenth Day of his Illness, and pressing a Convenient Quantity of Matter out of them into a warm Glass; the Glass is then carried by a third Person, in his warm Bosom, to the House of the Person to be Inoculated; The Person being in a warm Chamber, the Operator makes a slight Incision into the Arm and Leg, little more than the Skin deep, and then takes a Bit of Lint dipt in the infected Matter, and puts it into the Wound; or else drops a small Quantity of the Variolous Matter directly into it, taking care to mix it with the Blood. The Part is then cover’d with a Plaister of Diachylon, to keep it close for a Day or two, and is then drest from Time to Time, like an Issue. But that which deserves the Attention of Gentlemen, who would recommend this Practice to the World, is to satify us, that those who have been Inoculated are secure from catching the Distemper in the common Way afterwards…’


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