Sankofa Studies

Onesimus: The African Who Brought Inoculation to America

February 1, 2021

Vaccines. We are all talking about them. Should we get them? Should we not? There’s some interesting history surrounding vaccinations or inoculations that has its roots in Africa. At a time when smallpox was raging in Boston, it was an enslaved man named Onesimus that helped save lives. And of course, his contributions would be largely erased by the medical community.

Onesimus’s name at birth and place of birth are not known with certainty. He was first documented as living in the colonies in 1706, having been brought to North America as a slave. In December of that year, he was given as a gift by a church congregation to Cotton Mather, minister of North Church, as well as a prominent figure in the Salem Witch Trials. Mather renamed him after a first-century AD slave mentioned in the Bible. The name, “Onesimus” means “useful, helpful, or profitable”. 

Mather, an influential supporter of the Salem Witch Trials, is conflicted about trusting a slave. Although he admires Onesimus’ intelligence, he is wary of the “devilish rites” of Africans and writes in his diary about the need to watch Onesimus closely due to his “thievish” and “wicked” behavior. Mather asks Onesimus if he has had smallpox and Onesimus says, “yes and no.” And then he goes on to tell Mather of the practice in West Africa. He explains that “a tiny amount of pus from a smallpox victim had been scraped into his skin with a thorn. This practice, a precursor to modern vaccination, was an innovative practice that prevented untold numbers of deaths in West Africa and on disease-ridden slave ships to ports throughout the Atlantic. Racist European scientists at first refused to recognize that African physicians could have made such advances.”

Eventually, and with some research, Mather became a believer in this process and reached out physicians in Boston, asking that they consider the process that Onesimus told him about. The only doctor who responded was Zabdiel Boylston, who tried the process on his 6-year old son and two enslaved Africans (because the enslaved were always used for medical experiments). Boylston announced that it had been successful, but other doctors were still not convinced, especially since this info came from an African. There were also anti-inoculators who fought against Mather and Boylston. History has a funny way of repeating itself, doesn’t it?

“Only when they were left with no choice — when they were confronted with the deadliest smallpox outbreak in Boston history — did they resort to Onesimus’ technique. Ultimately, inoculation proved its effectiveness to the medical community in Boston and beyond. The 1721 smallpox epidemic killed 844 people and sickened 8,000. But only one in every 48 inoculated patients succumbed to the disease, compared with one in nine untreated patients. The procedure eventually led to Edward Jenner’s discovery of vaccination, which has spared millions of lives. Edward Jenner became known as the “father of immunology” and validated the practice of inoculation.

Onesimus, however, was all but erased from this story of medical triumph. On June 9, 1932, prominent psychiatrist and medical leader, Dr. Samuel Bayard Woodward addressed the Massachusetts Medical Society to tell the story of smallpox in Massachusetts; Onesimus was only mentioned once. Unfortunately, this facelessness has become the norm for black contributors to science and medicine.


Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

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