The first public “vaccines” campaign in US history was led by a Puritan preacher.

Cotton Mather had seen smallpox kill many fellow Bostonians, including his first wife and several of his children. The disease was a scourge on Native Americans and colonists living in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries. But Mather knew disease wasn’t inevitable. He had studied the sciences at Harvard before taking over his father’s influential congregation, Boston’s North Church. He believed God revealed truth in the book of Scripture and the book of nature, and Mather published several works showing the harmony between the two.

Mather’s scientific mind drove him to investigate his slave Onesimus’s claims that “he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it.” Onesimus showed him a scar on his arm where he had deliberately inserted a small amount of smallpox pus, inducing immunity. It sounded similar to reports Mather had read in a Royal Society paper. Should a smallpox epidemic befall Boston, Mather vowed, he would urge residents to get inoculated.

That epidemic came in spring 1721, after the HMS Seahorse pulled into Boston Harbor carrying traces of the disease. By the end of 1721, nearly half of the city’s 11,000 residents were infected. Basic precautions such as quarantines failed to prevent 844 Bostonians from dying that year alone.

Acting as a public servant, Mather urged doctors and his own congregants to get inoculated. But his campaign met strong resistance. Some feared that inoculation would spread smallpox further. Others thought humans shouldn’t try to fight what was clearly the judgment ...

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