Saturday, April 17, 2010

A stitch in time

Ben Franklin has long been one of my heroes. And Cotton Mather ... well, he was a Puritan theologian. Enough said. But I've just learned about a case in which Cotton Mather was right - about a matter of science, no less - and a young Ben Franklin was dead wrong. And in this case, dead is the operative word.

Smallpox was a periodic scourge that terrified people around the globe. It left a third of its victims dead, and many others with horrible scars. One day Mather was told by his servant, Onesimus, that back in his West African community healthy people had been protected by taking a drop of pus from a pox and inserting it into a small cut.

Later, Mather - who kept up with the top scientific journals from England - read a doctor's report about how similar inoculations protected people in Turkey. He vowed that when smallpox returned to Boston, he would spread the word. In April, 1721, when a sailor came ashore with the pox, that's just what he did.

Few believed him. Injecting smallpox pus into healthy people seemed insanely homicidal. The printer James Franklin started a second newspaper in Boston specifically to oppose inoculation. His younger brother, 16-year-old Ben Franklin, wrote a devastating satire of Mather, lampooning the preacher's sanctimoniousness. The newspaper harkened back to Mather's support for executing Quakers and hanging witches. Now he wants to give people smallpox! (Somebody threw a home-made grenade into Mather's window. Fortunately, it was a dud.)

In any event, almost nobody in Boston got the treatment. As a result, by September hundreds of people had died of the disease, and deaths continued into the following year.

Years later, long after Franklin's own four-year-old son had died of smallpox, the now-ambassador to France answered a letter from Mather's son, Samuel, praising Cotton Mather as a wise man and a doer of good. Meanwhile, a scientist in Germany had discovered that cowpox does the job much more safely, and smallpox began the long road to global eradication.

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