How an African Slave introduced Vaccination to America

african slaves

His ‘christian’ name was Onesimus, he was an African slave exported to America in the 17th century. Much of his background his unknown, we do not even know his actual birthplace in Africa. But we have quotes taken from the diary of his Master, one Reverend Mather from Boston, Massachusetts.

a very likely Slave; a young Man who is a Negro of a promising aspect of temper”

That entry was written on the 13th of December 1706, the congregation had just purchased a new slave for their reverend and he was obviously impressed with his gift (if you would call it that). He named his slave Onesimus, in memory of a Biblical slave from the book of Philemon ch 1 vs 16,  the Reverend also aimed to teach Onesimus how to read and write, and introduce him to Christianity.

But Reverend Mathers was not the only one doing the teaching, as one day Onesimus would end up teaching the Reverend about a medical procedure that would help to essentially save the city of Boston from a deadly epidemic.

Smallpox had plagued the city for years, the disease was spreading at an alarming rate and citizens of the state began to flee for their lives. This clearly had a negative effect on the economy, business owners were worried and their only form of defence against small pox (Quaratine) was proving not to be very effective.

In 1716, Mathers wrote a letter to the Royal Society of London proposing a method of ‘Innoculation’ (a form of vaccination) as a cure for the deadly smallpox, he also admitted that he learnt this process from “my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow”.  He went on to detail how Onesimus explained the process to him and he successfully convinced a few doctors to take up the practice of Innoculation and by 1722, Boston was free of small pox.

Here is a quote taken from the letter that Reverend Mathers wrote to the Royal Society of London, in this letter he explains how Onesimus had:

undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding, That it was often used among [Africans] and whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.

This piece of history goes a long way in refuting the age old concept that the continent of Africa had no evidence of complex civilisation, economies or medical expertise. African culture may be significantly different from Western culture but it is not Inferior by any means.  Today, Onesimus is celebrated as one of the greatest Bostonians of all time ( because he saved the city from small pox by teaching Innoculation.


Further Reading

Herbert, Eugenia W. “Smallpox Inoculation in Africa.” Journal of African History 16 (1975).
Mather, Cotton. Diary (1912).

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