Smallpox in Boston

Smallpox is a very old infectious disease, with cases being documented centuries before any doctor had written about it in a medical journal. Known first as just the pox or the red plague, the term smallpox was first used in England in the 15th century to separate it from “great pox”, or syphilis. Instances of smallpox popped up globally, and landed in Boston by 1721. Between April and December of 1721, 5,889 residents of Boston had been infected with smallpox, and 844 deaths had been caused by it. Smallpox was understandably a huge fear for those in Boston at the time, and news of deaths and cases of it popped up in newspapers around New England. With little to no knowledge about what caused the disease or how it spread, controversy also followed after the epidemic as medical professionals argued about the ethics and usefulness of inoculation

The New England Courant, a newspaper based out of Boston, frequently printed information concerning the epidemic. One article, dated Monday, May 21st 1722 reports on the amount of people succumbing to smallpox, and not just in the “common way”, but also after being introduced to the disease purposefully. It goes on to discuss arguments centered around inoculation, saying that a doctor by the name of Boylston maintains only six people in the town are sick due to inoculation. I did some further research on Dr. Boylston and found out that he was a doctor for all of Boston until his death in 1766, and is credited with being the first doctor to perform inoculation in the United States, first testing the procedure out on two slaves and his son. He performed a total of 248 inoculations during the time smallpox infected Boston-though not with the blessing of other physicians, as they thought it was fake medicine and often would threaten Dr. Boylston with death, forcing him to hide in his home for fourteen days straight, only seeing patientsthom_jenner-smallpox_sm after midnight and with a disguise. I thought this was really interesting because it seems like the paper is almost gossiping while talking about the doctor, almost like it’s trying to show readers the drama going on in the medical community over inoculation and it’s credibility as a real preventative measure. 

The Smallpox epidemic in Boston took place in 1721, though some newspaper articles I found still mention the disease and the epidemic as late at 1729. One article published on November 3rd, 1729 in the New-England Weekly Journal shows people were still paranoid about the disease, saying “this town was some time past in danger of the Smallpox coming among us, one or two persons having taken the infection, as is supposed from some foreigners lately arrived”. The author of this article goes on to talk about how the town’s “select-men” are doing their best to stop it from spreading. I thought this was interesting because it shows how people did not forget the devastating epidemic that took place almost a decade prior, and was still brought up in newspapers.

I wanted to find some articles written outside of Boston to see how other areas in the colonies reported on the epidemic. Most articles were from newspapers based in New England, and some other articles only mentioned the Smallpox killing people in London. Finally I found a cool article from Philadelphia, first published in 1739 in the Pennsylvania Gazette, so about two decades after the epidemic in Boston. The article features an excerpt of a  letter from Rhode Island, in which the write is discussing Smallpox, and that councilmen met up to try and decide how to stop it from spreading. This was a little confusing to me because all the other sources I read mentioned that the Smallpox did not disappear from Boston but after 1722, it wasn’t as prevalent. But there it was still being talked about twenty years later and being printed about in Pennsylvania.

Overall, it seems Smallpox was still a  big topic in the years after the epidemic. During the epidemic, newspapers reported on how many deaths had been occurring and also talked about controversy surrounding inoculation, which I thought was really interesting. The articles show clear distress about people were still paranoid about the disease coming back, and with their lack of medical knowledge seemed unable to decide who to trust in terms of how to best avoid catching the disease.

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[1] THE New England Courant, May 21 1722 (Boston, Massachusetts), America’s Historical Newspapers.

[2] New-England Weekly Journal, November 3 1729 (Boston, Massachusetts), America’s Historical Newspapers.

[3] Pennsylvania Gazette, July 4, 1739 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), America’s Historical Newspapers.

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4 thoughts on “Smallpox in Boston

  1. I think you did a great job looking into the newspapers and going beyond Boston to find out more information on small pox. When he was mentioned in Newspaper articles, were they ever people trying to find him? Such as advertisments for people who wanted to get inoculated on purpose? Or did most people try to hid the fact that they were being inoculated.

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    • Thank you! I really tried to find information about the people who ended up being inoculated. I could not find any ads or anything, and I wanted to know since Dr. Boylston had to hide the fact he was performing them, did his patients have to hid the fact that they received them? Other doctors were looking for him, and he received a ton of threats on his life, and his family’s life, so I imagine they were pretty serious threats. But he continued to perform inoculations because he really believed he was saving people. I also wondered how people requested his services if he was in hiding a lot. I would love to know what happened to his patients though.

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  2. It’s worth noting that the debate about inoculation in Boston was part of what got James Franklin in trouble as publisher of the New England Courant. So it might be interesting to pair your post with Pat’s on the relevant section of Franklin’s Autobiography.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your blog post, one thing I thought was interesting was comparing this outbreak to the one in Charlestown that Patty wrote about was the difference in reaction to inoculation. You describe how Dr. Boylston was conducting inoculations in secret and was threatened multiple times. However, the doctor in South Carolina, 17 years later, was not received as negatively. Perhaps the brutal repercussions following the epidemic in Boston scared the medical community into recognizing inoculation as an acceptable form of disease prevention.

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