Smallpox was the viral sensation of the 18th century: Like Brendan Fraser, it routinely came back despite nobody wanting it or understanding why. Boston was hit particularly hard by the disease, and doctors were scrambling to find a cure. When viruses proved resistant to the era's treatments, there seemed to be little left to do but pray. Enter reverend Cotton Mather, of the Salem Witch Trials fame. Fortunately, before he started clubbing the whole town to death with his copy of Malleus Maleficarum, he remembered something he'd been told by a slave his congregation had bought for him.
Other than, "Get them to buy you a better wig."
The slave was called Onesimus. Mather had taught him to read and write, and was on reasonably friendly enough terms with the dude. By 1721, Onesimus had already bought (most of) his freedom, but had given Mather something even more valuable: A little piece of information called how to deal with the freaking smallpox.
Onesimus taught Cotton that in Africa, the locals had discovered an effective prevention: They would purposefully infect people with a weaker form of the disease Onesimus called "juice of smallpox," so the body could learn to fight against the full-strength form. This process is now known as inoculation, and eventually went on to become Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccine. It was wildly successful: When Mather tested the method out that year, only 2 percent of the 300 or so Bostonians he inoculated against smallpox died, while 14 percent of the un-inoculated who caught the disease succumbed to it.
Frederick Childe Hassam
20 percent of survivors then died of Boston Chill, but they valued the extra time he'd given them.
Mather always gave Onesimus full credit for introducing inoculation to Boston. Unfortunately, that proved to be a dual problem in the era's atmosphere, where disease was basically considered God's will and doctors were still arguing about whether it was possible for black people to know anything. Thus, Mather's declaration that one of these pesky black dudes -- an uneducated slave, for that matter -- basically just saved the whole town also threatened to overthrow centuries of racially-biased science. Unsurprisingly, out came the pitchforks.
Physician William Douglass argued that inoculation superstition and folklore that would only spread the disease. Mather was attacked for his "negroish like thinking." He was literally attacked by a guy who lobbed a bomb through his window, complete with a note that said: "COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You; I'l inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you." Tragically, the story doesn't say how the assassin presumed Mather would have read the note had the bomb actually exploded.
When has "No one will read this" ever stopped a troll?
Through it all, Cotton Mather continued to push for inoculation. However, keeping Onesimus in the history books that were trying to erase his name even as they were written proved too difficult, and eventually, the whole thing got attributed to Mather. Meanwhile, the Wikipedia entry on the slave who saved Boston consists of a whopping 30 words. Luckily, history books can be revised: Recent years have seen Onesimus getting slightly more recognition by the general public. He was recently voted on the list of 100 best Bostonians, and actually scored higher on the list than Mather.
For more people picked never for the annals of time, check out 5 Important People Who Were Screwed Out Of History Books and 23 Amazing People Who Were Screwed Out Of History Books.
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