Updated: Jun 8
West Africans and Onesimus: The Inventors of Inoculation
According to the prescribed text for this course, the first person to discover the science of inoculations was a person of English origin named Edward Jenner. But, this information is incorrect. The first documented person to speak about the benefits of inoculation in a very detailed and exact way was a person from West Africa whom we now know only by the name Onesimus, highlighting the contribution of West Africans for the invention of the vaccine.
Onesimus was the first person to introduce the idea of inoculation in the Americas. During an epidemic outbreak of smallpox in Boston in the early 1700s, Onesimus suggested to his captor that a certain surgical procedure that was common in his homeland could be used to prevent smallpox infection. This fact is well documented in hundreds of clippings from the time, many of which reveal escalating levels of anger amongst the people of Boston at the thought of implementing a treatment suggested by an African person.
The people of Boston were so irate at this novel idea that several attempts on the life of the person who legally possessed Onesimus, a prominent Puritan minister named Cotton Mather, were made. Interestingly, Reverend Cotton Mather is famous and forever marred in history as being a key player in carrying out the Salem Witch Trials. Cotton Mather authored many writings about Onesimus, his contribution, the details of the outbreak, and his challenging efforts to convince his congregation and township to utilize inoculation.
Onesimus introduced the idea of inoculation into Boston in 1706, about 100 years before Jenner. According to the Journal of Community Health, the practice of smallpox inoculation was well underway in West and sub-Saharan Africa before the colonial era, as it has been documented in that region as early as the 1600s. Understanding of microbiology was nonexistent during turn of the century in the area of colonial America. There was some limited understanding of the fact that smallpox could be passed from one person to another, as evidenced by the fact that practices involving quarantine were already underway by this time. But, how to stop or prevent smallpox infection was unknown by the colonists until Onesimus spoke up.
After some time, Cotton Mather and two other prominent Bostonian leaders (one of whom was a medical doctor) convinced approximately 300 people to undergo smallpox inoculation, of whom only 2% died. The details that Onesimus described were to take a small amount of the pus of an infected person, to cut a small slice into the skin of an uninfected person, and insert the organic matter into the skin. The procedure was done on the lower forearm of the uninfected person. All of these details were independently corroborated by other persons of African origin in the Boston area by Cotton Mather and his colleagues.
Smallpox was once a devastating disease which, it seemed to colonial Americans at the time, could not be stopped. It was one of the most feared diseases in colonial America during the 18th century, as evidenced by clippings of the time. Eventually, a medical practice that originated in West Africa was able to develop into the world we have today, which is 100% smallpox-free. It is time that credit is given where credit is due: to stop erroneously crediting the wrong person just because that person was English, and to stand up for the intelligence, bravery, and sheer genius of the people of West Africa, and Onesimus, for their outstanding contribution to the field of microbiology and global health.
Imperato, P. J., & Imperato, G. H. (2014). Smallpox inoculation (variolation) in east africa with special reference to the practice among the boran and gabra of northern kenya. Journal of Community Health, 39(6), 1053-1062. doi:10.1007/s10900-014-9928-5
How an African Slave in Boston Helped Save Generations From Smallpox (Feb 1, 2019) https://www.history.com/news/smallpox-vaccine-onesimus-slave-cotton-mather
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