Dissecting the Pamphlet Literature of the Boston Smallpox Inoculation Controversy
In April of 1721, a number of ships from the West Indies docked in Boston Harbor. One of these vessels, the HMS Seahorse, hailing from Salt Tortuga, delivered a shipment of cargo to the colony. It also brought smallpox. Despite efforts to quarantine the infected, by the end of May, eight people had contracted the deadly virus, and with the specter of an epidemic looming over the city, the citizens of Boston looked to two different sources for medical leadership: the clergy and an assortment of medical practitioners.2 The clergy, led by Cotton Mather, championed the relatively new practice of inoculation, or variolation, as a preventative for smallpox, while the physicians, represented by the Scots-born physician, William Douglass, scorned such a strategy as dangerous to the general population. A battle of words ensued between these camps, with each publishing fiery arguments in the pages of Boston’s newspaper and pamphlet literature. The key documents of this debate—distributed as the epidemic claimed life after life—stand as powerful cultural narratives that reveal the complex rhetorical and literary strategies employed by these two groups at a crucial moment in the story of the institutionalization of medical knowledge-making in America.
Copyright 2011 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Literature and Medicine, vol. 29, Iss. 1, Spring 2011, 39-57.