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Day 7: An African introduced the precursor to vaccinations to the United States

28 Days of Black History

Photo by Pixabay/public domain

A former slave, Onesimus, is responsible for introducing inoculation to the United States.
Inoculation, the precursor to vaccination, happens when a pathogen or antigen is introduced into a living organism to stimulate the production of antibodies.
Not much is known about Onesimus but he was likely born in Africa in the late 17th century and brought to the new American colonies as a slave.
According to the Hutchins Center for African American Research, Onesimus’ master — minister and theologian of Boston’s Old North Church, Cotton Mather–named him after a biblical slave who also escaped from his master, an early Christian named Philemon.
Onesimus would later purchase his freedom. His former owner used when he learned from him to combat a smallpox epidemic in Boston.
In a 1716 letter to the Royal Society of London, Mather said, “ye Method of Inoculation” as the best means of curing smallpox and noted that he had learned of this process from “my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow.”
The people in Boston adopted the practice in future smallpox outbreaks as it was the most effective means of treating disease until Edward Jenner developed vaccination in 1796.
Onesimus’ African practice was also used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War.


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