Guest Column: Early History of Inoculation

by Glenn Parris*

Last weekend, the United States passed the morbid milestone of more than half a million Americans who have died from SARS CoV2, the novel coronavirus since February 2020.      

We struggled like pre-industrial civilizations for most of the year as we have not had any antimicrobial defense to combat COVID19. We were slow to adopt social distancing and mask-wearing. Too many of us did not take the virus seriously and now, there are too many African Americans and other individuals who are afraid of the vaccine for different reasons.

Inoculation with subdued infectious viruses is one of the most ancient forms of preventive medicine known to man. The ancient Egyptians practiced it; West Africans practiced it for hundreds of years. Hundreds of millions of Chinese and those who inhabited the Indian subcontinent all engaged in this practice.

Reverend Cotton Mather, who lived through the turn of the eighteenth century from the Salem witch trials to the smallpox outbreak in Boston and Salem, wrote about his newly acquired slave, Onesimus, who described to Mathers how inoculation was practiced in West Africa. Mathers confirmed the widespread use of this technique among other slaves taken from Africa. Mathers, convinced this procedure could save the colony, began inoculating Bostonians. Mathers compared disease outcomes of those inoculated vs those not inoculated. The difference was dramatic, 2% mortality of those treated with inoculation as opposed to over 15% mortality among those who contracted smallpox naturally. This was documented by Mathers who sent his finding to England for publication. Colonial amateurs weren’t always taken seriously.

It wasn’t until 80 years later in 1800 when Edward Jenner experimented with cowpox inoculation of children, that the concept of immunity to smallpox could be conferred by the introduction of a weakened form of virus or a similar, less virulent virus, cowpox. Edward Jenner is widely credited with developing the revolutionary concept of vaccines [Vaccine from the Latin “vacca” for cow].

The knowledgeable, unknown African, Onesimus, had not been credited with his revelations to early American public health until recently; despite the fact that this information has always existed in the public record. Mathers’ notes and correspondence have been treated as an insignificant footnote, never addressed in traditional history lessons.

For the last week of Black History Month, let us all acknowledge and celebrate Onesimus, this unsung hero of American history, and his contribution to the survival of this fragile nation.

Lest we forget…


Boylston, Arthur. “The Origins of Inoculation.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 105, no. 7, 28 July 2012, pp. 309–313., doi:10.1258/jrsm.2012.12k044.

Mather, Cotton, 1663-1728. Diary of Cotton Mather, 1681-1724. Boston: The Society (1911-12) 

*About the Author Glenn Parris

Glenn Parris writes medical mystery, Afrofuturistic science fiction, and historical fiction. The Renaissance of Aspirin, his debut novel which garnered rave reviews, and paranormal fantasy, Unbitten: A Vampire Dream have both been adapted to screen plays. His short story, “The Tooth Fairies, Quest for Tearhaven,” heads up the anthology Where the Veil is Thin. He has contributed a short story to Tales of Wakanda Marvel’s tribute to Chadwick Bozman scheduled for release February 2, 2021. Speculative science fiction novel, Dragon’s Heir, The Archeologist’s Tale, an allegory of culture, caste, and imperialism, is scheduled for publication by Outland Entertainment this spring. Over the past 30 years, Glenn Parris has taught young medical students and residents as faculty at Emory School of Medicine, as well as at Morehouse School of Medicine and Philadelphia School of Osteopathic Medicine. Currently, he is Medical Director of a large rheumatology practice in the northeast Atlanta suburbs.