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1721Past Pandemics

Smallpox and Yellow Fever Pandemics

Image of Narrative of Black Aid-work during the 1793 Pandemic

Narrative of Black Aid-work during the 1793 Pandemic

Boston’s smallpox epidemic of 1721 killed nearly 15 percent of the city’s population. The disease would have claimed more lives were it not for the advice and medical knowledge of an enslaved man named Onesimus. Smallpox was an extremely contagious virus that plagued much of the world for millennia, but some African societies had developed a method to combat spread of the disease.

Onesimus was enslaved by Cotton Mather, a prominent Boston minister who wrote extensively about witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Onesimus described the long-standing African practice of inoculation, introducing pathogens to open wounds to produce antibodies and induce immunity. Although Mather believed that Africans worshiped the devil and engaged in “devilish rites,” he took Onesimus’ advice and convinced a Boston doctor to inoculate hundreds of people.

Decades later, another American city would experience a viral outbreak and rely on African American medical prowess to save lives. In 1793 Philadelphia many falsely believed African Americans were immune to yellow fever. City officials asked the Free African Society, a mutual aid society founded by Absolom Jones and Richard Allen, to organize nurses to care for the sick and bury the dead. In fact, African Americans were not immune to the virus and many of the nurses and volunteers contracted yellow fever and died.

After the outbreak local politicians blamed the city’s death toll on the quality of care provided by Black nurses. Absolom Jones and Richard Allen refuted these claims in a pamphlet that detailed African American contributions during the outbreak.

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