Updated: Jan 25
The Speckled Monster
Born in 1749, Edward Jenner lived
In an imperial, martial, century,
When Britannia Ruled the Waves,
And triangular trade and enslavement,
Filled Britain’s pockets and coffers to the brim;
While over the Atlantic Archipelago, African slaves were mocked and ridiculed For their Creole medicine and smallpox cures;
While over here, in the Age of Enlightenment,
Philosophers would develop ideas
And ideologies of racism,
While Science, Reason and Experimentation,
Walked monied hand in hand
With Tyburn Tree skullduggery, Where even necrophiliac surgeons Would baulk at payment for smallpox victims
Destined for their empty table of dissection.
A careful student of farm and field, Doctor Edward Jenner saw how the smallpox Killed one in ten in town and village, And saw how it disfigured survivors With blindness and itinerant beggary
(‘The Speckled Monster’), And he studied the epidemic Of King George’s first strange madness year, And he listened to the farmyard yarns Of the protective power of cow-pox, and these Rustic milkmaid tales convinced this thinker, That vaccination, as he would call it, Could save the nation’s health; and in the years When the “Rights of Man” spread its virus Through the common swinish multitude (To the alarm of Pitt’s body politic), Edward Jenner listened to Sarah Nelmes: ‘My cow Blossom has recently had the cowpox, sir’, Examined the rash on her hand, Took cowpox from the dairy, And gave it to the 8 year old James Phipps, Who gained, as this iconoclast forecast, Resistance to the ubiquitous smallpox: “It now becomes too manifest to admit of controversy, that the annihilation of the Small Pox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice.” [Edward Jenner, 1801, on Vaccination (with cowpox)]
But today, I read Why We Kneel, How We Rise written and edited by Michael Holding
And I learned something knew – how did I not know before?
Read on, or listen, and learn, as I did,
For ‘Every day is a school day’…
Boston, Massachusetts, 1721:
Smallpox arrives on a British ship;
Over 50% of the 11,000 population will become infected;
Almost 10% will die:
‘God have mercy upon this house’,
And quarantine, or escape or red flags for danger;
But, Onesimus - not a Christian convert,
Despite the Biblical name bestowed by his owner -
Told his owner, one Cotton Mather,
A Puritan preacher (Oh, Salem!),
That he had been inoculated in Africa …
“Mather wrote that Onesimus ‘had undergone an operation which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it … and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of contagion’.
What Onesimus described was the process of pus being taken from a person infected with smallpox and rubbed into a cut on a person’s arm.”
Onesimus’s account of immunity
Was corroborated by other enslaved persons …
But prejudice being prejudice …
“Only one doctor in Boston believed that
Onesimus’s treatment would work”:
Zabdiel Boylston commenced inoculation,
Firstly, with his family, and ‘enslaved property’:
Only six people died from the inoculated group,
Nearly 300 people, in total.
“Towards the end of the eighteenth century, a vaccination was developed against smallpox thanks to Onesimus’s method. Edward Jenner … got the credit and was hailed as a pioneer. He was white.”
Onesimus’s fate is uncertain:
“Some historians say he was able to buy his freedom from Cotton Mather. Let’s think about that for a second. The man who helped beat smallpox in Boston wasn’t even granted his freedom. He was still considered worthless. And, years later, a white man took the credit.”
Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
And this is what Edward Jenner did, too.
And even though Onesimus has been described as
“One of the best Bostonians of all time”,
It is also important to remember
That the re-named Onesimus
Is, in a sense, the personification
Of wisdom, knowledge and practice
Known to countless, anonymous Africans.
So many shoulders.
So many giants.