"Onesimus" by Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Erica Pernell
In 1706, a Puritan congregation in Boston purchased a gift for their minister Cotton Mather. This gift was human: an African* person whom Mather would enslave. Cotton Mather did not ask this person’s name, rather he gave him the name of an enslaved person in the Bible: Onesimus. While we don’t know Onesimus’ real name, we know that he had a huge impact on medicine and disease in New England.
In 1716, Onesimus told Mather about one aspect of the medicine his society practiced in Africa. Onesimus told Mather that he was inoculated against smallpox when his doctors back home purposely infected him with a small dose of smallpox. The idea intrigued Mather and he held onto Onesimus’ explanation of the process.
Five years later, Onesimus had purchased his freedom and the city of Boston was embroiled in a smallpox outbreak. Mather was set on sharing Onesimus’ idea of inoculation with the public in an effort to save Boston from this devastating outbreak. Mather mounted a public campaign for inoculation, explaining the process Onesimus described to him: causing a small infection in people to guard against a larger one. When doctors and the public found out that Mather’s ideas originated with Onesimus, an enslaved African, they immediately discredited him. They believed that African medicine was not to be trusted.
One doctor, however, took inoculation seriously and began performing the procedure on Bostonians who were willing to take the chance. Meanwhile, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston and Cotton Mather were subjected to public scorn and ridicule and a grenade was thrown into Mather’s home. Despite the derision, a survey of 6,000 Bostonians concluded that those who were inoculated had a mortality rate of 2%, while those who were not inoculated were seven times more likely to perish from smallpox (a 14% mortality rate). Inoculation became the standard procedure to safeguard against contagious disease, until the invention of the vaccine almost 75 years later.
We tell the story of Onesimus for so many reasons. Many people do not know that slavery was alive and well in Boston in the 1700s. This complex history of the city right next door to Nobles gives context for modern day laws, ideologies, and segregation.
Onesimus is not a name that appeared in my science or history textbooks, despite the fact that I learned about immunity in school. The accomplishments and contributions of marginalized groups have a tendency to live in the shadows of our history, as opposed to front and center.
Lastly, this is a story about bias. Quite literally, bias against African people and ideas caused 844 Bostonians to perish needlessly from smallpox. Simply put, we are at our best when people of all identities can share their perspectives, experiences and expertise without their identity being a reason to discount them. We must be even more intentional when hearing from voices that are traditionally silenced or unheard.
At Nobles, we do our best to give students ample opportunities to listen to voices that help them to confront their own bias. We hope you’ll do the same at home.
*Onesimus’ place of birth is unknown but is believed to be somewhere in central Sudan.