I Never Heard His Name

“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” 
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations – 1841-1844

Risk

Dr. Zabdiel Boylston!

I confess I never heard of his name, but I am very glad that he lived. In fact, many have survived because of the great risks he took to overcome the dreaded disease, smallpox. Smallpox is a disease unique to humans, believed to have had its first appearance about 10,000 BC.  Fast forward to the 18th century, smallpox claimed an estimated 400,000 Europeans every year.   Even the great King Louis XV was not immune to its attack.

Dr. Zabdiel Boylston (1679 – 1766) was a Boston-based physician who apprenticed with his father, an English surgeon named Thomas Boylston, and Dr. Cutler, a Bostonian physician. Zabdiel never attended medical school, yet he renowned for being the first American physician to perform several surgical operations,  including the removal of gall bladder stones and a breast tumour. Yet his most daring act occurred during the 1721 smallpox outbreak in Boston.

Today, on June 26, 1721, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston performed America’s first vaccinations against smallpox, based on the idea that originated from  Africa. He applied pus from a smallpox sore to a small wound on three patients, one of them being his precious son.  All in all, he inoculated approximately 248 people.  Other physicians were appalled, hostile and vicious. Zabdiel received threats on his life. He went into hiding; even his family was in a precariously dangerous position.  He visited his patients in disguise, after midnight.

A few years later, in 1724, Zabdiel travelled to London, England, to publish his results. He became a fellow of the Royal Society.  You may be interested in know that Dr. Zabdiel Boylston was the great-uncle of President John Adams.

“During the first period of a man’s life the greatest danger is not to take the risk.”

Soren Kierkegaard

 

41 thoughts on “I Never Heard His Name

  1. What an extraordinary story … how did you find this Rebecca?… apparently in the same year, 1724, the Royal Society in published a paper by Dr Emmanual Timoni, and he based his work on the Turkish custom of vaccination…so many fragments of history that come together… and so fascinating that ideas are never alone.. that they seem to float in the ether and get absorbed by several people at the same time… like the first people to invent aeroplanes…like Darwin and Wallace…

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    • Valerie – this is indeed exciting. I found this story in one of my many books that provide little snippets of history. And now, through your comments, I have another link with Dr. Timoni! From my readings it appears the Dr Boylston first heard about the inoculation idea from a New England Puritan minister, Cotton Mather, who learned about it through an African slave named Onesimus. Wikipedia has the first reference to smallpox inoculation coming from China via author Wan Quan (1499-1582). By the 17th century the idea had come to Turkey and Africa. It was the wife of the British Ambassador, Lady Montagu (who had her 2 young children inoculated), who brought Dr. Timoni’s ideas to the attention of the British Royal family.

      We pride ourselves in living within a global world. I think that we always lived in global community that shared and exchanged knowledge vital to humanity’s survival. We just have different communication media. Incidentally, I am reading about the story of Samuel Morse. (I do love history – so many stories. And in our way, we continue to add ours along the way.)

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      • How fascinating this all is Rebecca, and even more, your remark abut the global communication we’ve always had.. including word of mouth! I also think there’s a sort of osmosis that happens, so that children in Sydney in 1937 were singing the same rude rhymes about Mrs Simpson – hark the herald angels sing, Mrs Simpson’s pinched our king – as children in England!!!

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      • I have heard of this phenomenon and have wondered how new ideas have come together spontaneously through time and space. You always have me scurrying around on a wonderful knowledge treasure hunt. I looked up Synchronicity which, according to Wikipeida is “the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner.” And guess who came up with the idea – none other than our deal Carl Gustav Jung. Oh, this is great stuff!! Thank you so much, Valerie!!

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      • Yes, I think I referred to Jung when I did a blog on synchronicity some months ago…
        He was analysing someone’s dream,and they were talking about a scarab beetle, when suddenly a little green scarab- like beetle banged into the window pane !!!
        lovely isn’t it
        I wonder how we ever lived before Wikipedia… though I do sometimes find it rather slack or in-accurate.. And when you know something about a subject and you look it up, you can sometimes see people’s prejudices coming through in their interpretation of the facts, or their selection of the facts !!!

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      • Yes, you did refer to Jung in your blog post! Ah, our dear Wikipedia – yes, I have found that even dates are out of sync. And there is indeed room for opinion. I just finished an autobiography, which I will not name, but it made me realize that I must be more prudent in my choice of reading. Historical narratives, and for that matter, today’s headlines are about different perspectives. It it very difficult to distinguish truth.

        History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”
        ― Winston Churchill

        But I think I am going to revisit Jung…🙂

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    • A very good point! Yes, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding vaccinations. Perhaps that is a good thing. It is always the balancing of risk/reward that is in question. Without risk, we will never know. I often think of Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine – a new vaccine within our lifetime. How many lives were saved – probably millions over the years.

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      • Questioning is always good. But for people like my parents and forbears who lived through times of polio epidemics, and other epidemics, there was absolutely no question about having their children vaccinated.

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      • Yes, and my parents had us vaccinated privately at the health clinic but, one year, the public health nurses came to our primary school to give us all polio drops. The nurses were told that I didn’t need the polio drops but they didn’t seem to care so I was lined up with everyone else and, as a result, given an extra, unnecessary dose. I was so upset. But no harm seems to have been done🙂

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      • That is exactly what you would have thought! Children go through so much unnecessary agony, simply because we forget how to communicate with children.

        “When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laughter broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies – Peter Pan”
        ― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

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  2. Several years ago, Indonesia was declared free of old diseases, especially polio, smallpox, leprosy, and leprosy. However, this time could potentially reappear as viruses or bacteria that have been neglected disease. as smallpox that has been extinct in 1980, it still has the potential to emerge again. my daughter got it in 2005 although all the children had been in vaccine.

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    • Diseases don’t take vacations. I was reading about the Polio vaccine that was introduced in the 1960’s. According to Wikipedia, the worldwide reported cases of polio was 350,000 in 1980. In 2007, the cases were reduced to 1,652. We have made great progress; and there is always more to learn. I am thankful that there are men and women who work tirelessly to look for ways in which to prevent sickness. 🙂

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  3. he changed the world – I once heard Buckminster Fuller say that history for mankind flows like water down the course of least resistance. Here’s a man who stood firm and chanced the course of life.

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    • Can you imagine what it would be like to involve your child in such a medical experiment?!! The fear of smallpox would have give added courage to find a way to prevent such a terrible sickness! I agree – he was intrepid!!!

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  4. Oh wow, lot of meat here. You gotta love the cycle of success, through distruction! Can you imagine living prior to the 1930s and the advent of antibiotics? And, now we’re going full circle with too much of a good thing, destroying their efficacy. And, last but not least, love the Emerson quote. I’ll be waiting for Thoreau next.😉 You brighten my day as well, lovely, clanmother.

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    • I am just reading about surgery in the 1830’s They simply did not know that washing hands and instruments was important. AHHHGGGH!!! But we continue to learn and learn!!! 🙂

      “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”
      ― Henry David Thoreau

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      • We’re still relearning that “we” really do need to wash our hands. One of the biggest problems in hospitals is hospital borne infections, predominately caused by inadequate hygiene, hand washing!

        Love the Thoreau quote. Isn’t it true what words spoken or written that don’t ring authentic, from that which has been lived (experienced) is felt by the listener or reader. It sure is for me. Even with cyber friends, there’s an energy when it’s a real connection, whether personal or objective.

        You’ve a lovely heart, that rings well to mine. Thank you.

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      • My dear friend – I am in the middle of listening to your interview! You are fabulous!!!! What an amazing journey you are on – so glad that I can follow….🙂

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