What did Celia think when her arm was sliced? How about when the dried pus was placed in the cut by the doctor? Did anyone tell her that she would likely soon become sick? Or that boils might develop from the lancing? Or that she might become permanently scarred as a result? And likely quarantined for a number of days?

Celia, enslaved by Colonel John Alford of Charlestown, was given this inoculation against contracting a serious case of smallpox with a mild form when she was a child of only eight years old in 1721 by Doctor Zabdiel Boylston. She was one of the fortunate few to receive it because the procedure was expensive and the death rate from the disease was high, running between 10 and 25 percent. It was similar to Covid-19 in that both jumped from animals to humans and were spread through aerosol droplets, but there were no asymptomatic cases with smallpox. Those with it suffered great physical pain, and were usually left with lifelong scarring from the pustules (Najera).

Another enslaved person living in Boston the same time as Celia was an African man, Onesimus, from Guaramante, today’s southern Libya. He had been gifted to the Reverend Cotton Mather by his congregants a few years earlier, in 1706. Little did the minister realize how great a gift to humanity Onesimus was, because he held a key to the prevention of most serious cases of the pox in the future.

Like many colonial clergymen, Mather was well versed in the medical literature of the day, and he was particularly determined to find a treatment or cure against smallpox during the 1721 Boston outbreak. In his readings of the medical publications of the Royal Society, he came across a procedure, inoculation, being used to fight the disease. It was already being practiced in Asia, in the Ottoman Empire, and parts of Africa. Among many others, young men in West Africa who were likely to be going off to war sometimes were inoculated in case of exposure (Yero).

Mather asked Onesimus if he had ever had smallpox. Their conversation is now a part of the historical record. As the minister wrote,

“Enquiring of my Negro man, Onesimus, who is a pretty intelligent fellow, whether he had ever had the smallpox, he answered, both yes and no.” Onesimus explained that “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it.” He went on to tell Mather about the operation being used with regularity in his homeland and showed him the scar left on his arm (Boylston). In other words, Onsesimus had been inoculated before being forced to leave Africa. The dried pus used in such procedures was from the pustules formed on someone with a mild form of smallpox.

Unfortunately, the idea of inoculation was far from acceptance in colonial Boston. Ministers said it would be playing God. Doctor William Douglas, the only university trained doctor in the town, did not believe that something that important could be learned from a slave. He speculated that the local Africans were trying to get back at enslavers for slavery, or pranking them by attempting to cause a worse epidemic (Wehrman). It is therefore unlikely that anyone in the Douglas family, or his enslaved man, Abba (Emerson), were as fortunate as Celia in receiving the treatment.

Mather was likely exhilarated to hear first hand from someone who was familiar with smallpox inoculation. He had suffered a great loss a few years earlier when three of his children and his wife had died during a measles epidemic. In addition, he contracted smallpox in an earlier outbreak. No one in the colonies had accepted the idea of inoculation yet, but the minister soon started approaching physicians about inoculating patients. Not until he asked Zabdiel Boylston did he find a partner. Although not formally educated, Boylston, like all other doctors in town except for Douglas, had gained his knowledge through experience in doctoring and in the medical skills of the day.

Two of the first three persons inoculated in Boston were enslaved by Boylston, Jack, a Black man in his thirties along with his two and a half year old son, Jackie (Mutschler).

As Boylston put it, “[I] Artificially [gave] the Small Pocks, by Inoculation, to One of my Children, and Two of my Slaves, in order to prevent the hazard of Life” (“Advertisement”].

Who were required by the selectmen to do the dirty work of cleaning the streets of Boston in an attempt to sanitize against “dangerous exhalations” during the epidemic? Free Black men (Mutschler).

By the time Celia was inoculated in March of 1730, the names of those who received the treatment, including hers, were listed in the local papers (“Boston, April 18th. 1730.”). [NOTE: See a copy of the original newspaper article in this posting]

The people in this story are long gone, but if you travel through the towns of Alford (Alford) or Douglas (Emerson), both in Massachusetts, you will experience part of their legacy. Both towns were named after these enslavers.

Susan Elliott

Independent Researcher


“Advertisement.” Boston Gazette (Boston, Massachusetts), no. 85, July 17, 1721: [2]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.nehgs.idm.oclc.org/…/doc….

Alford, Town of. “History.” https://townofalford.org/history/. Accessed 17 May 2021.”

“Boston, April 18th. 1730.” New-England Weekly Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), no. CLXI, April 20, 1730: [1]. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.nehgs.idm.oclc.org/…/doc….

Boylston, Arthur. “The origins of inoculation.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 105,7 (2012): 309-13. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2012.12k044. The quotes are taken from a letter written by Cotton Mather that was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3407399/

Emerson, William Andres. History of the Town of Douglas, (Massachusetts), from the Earliest Period to the Close of 1878. F.W. Bird, 1879, Boston. https://archive.org/…/historyoftow…/page/144/mode/2up…

Mutschler, Ben. “From Inoculation to Vaccination.” Ben Franklin’s World, Episode 301. 27 April 2021. Mutschler is an Associate Professor in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion at Oregon State University.

Najera, René. “From Inoculation to Vaccination.” Ben Franklin’s World, Episode 301. 27 April 2021. Najera is a Brown Scholar at Johns Hopkins, Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Wehrman, Andrew. “From Inoculation to Vaccination.” Ben Franklin’s World, Episode 301. 27 April 2021. Najera is a Brown Scholar at Johns Hopkins, Bloomberg School of Public Health. Wehrman is an assistant professor of history at Central Michigan University.

Yero, Farren. “From Inoculation to Vaccination.” Ben Franklin’s World, Episode 301. 27 April 2021. Farren is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University

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