In 1716, New England Puritan clergyman and writer Cotton Mather wrote a letter to the Royal Society of London in which he explained how he had been introduced to the practice of inoculation by an enslaved man named Onesimus. Mather had learned about the practice from Onesimus in 1706, during a smallpox epidemic in Boston, Massachusetts.
In the letter, Mather described how Onesimus had informed him that he had been inoculated for smallpox in his native Africa and had never contracted the disease again. Mather was initially skeptical of Onesimus’ claims, as smallpox inoculation was not widely practiced in Europe or the American colonies at the time. However, he was intrigued by the idea and began to investigate further.
The Puritan clergyman consulted with several physicians and scientists in Europe and America and began to collect data on the practice of inoculation. He eventually became convinced of its efficacy and began to advocate for its widespread adoption in the American colonies.
Mather’s advocacy for inoculation was not without controversy, however. Many people in the colonies were opposed to the practice, and some believed that it was against God’s will to interfere with the natural course of disease. As such, he faced criticism and ridicule from some quarters, but he remained committed to the idea and continued to promote it throughout his life.
In his letter to the Royal Society, Mather credited Onesimus with introducing him to the practice of inoculation and acknowledged the debt that he owed to the enslaved man. The letter was an important contribution to the growing body of knowledge about smallpox inoculation and helped to pave the way for its eventual acceptance in the American colonies and Europe.