How a minister — rather than a scientist — led pro-vax movement

Cotton Mather, a prominent Puritan minister from Boston during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, was the furthest thing from a science advocate. Deeply conservative, he argued in defense of the Salem Witch Trials and noted that his life was “a continual conversation with heaven.” 

He was also one of the first influential figures in the New World to encourage vaccinations. 

Between 1721 and 1722, as a smallpox epidemic ravaged Boston — it was the region’s second most deadly outbreak, infecting half the city’s population — Mather learned of a curious inoculation method from one of his slaves named Onesimus. 

Onesimus explained that he’d been deliberately exposed to smallpox back in Africa, a procedure that protected him from further infection. It was a form of folk medicine that had been practiced for years, not just in Africa but across Central Asia and Wales. 

Turkey had been using variolation — immunizing patients with the pustules of sick patients — to protect against smallpox since at least 1660. 

The story “ultimately turned Mather into a firm believer in the power of variolation even as some of his peers in the religious community objected to the practice,” writes Steven Johnson in his new book “Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer” (Riverhead), out now. 

In the 18th Century, Charles Dickens helped sway the public toward vaccinations. Today Pope Francis calls it a "moral" obligation to get the COVID jab.
In the 18th Century, Charles Dickens helped sway the public toward vaccinations. Today Pope Francis calls it a “moral” obligation to get the COVID jab.
Getty Images (2)

In modern life, we believe science alone is what will save us from disease. But “scientists and physicians are only part of the network that drives meaningful change,” Johnson writes. “Without activists and reformers and evangelists, many life-saving ideas would have languished in research labs or been resisted by the general public.” 

A smallpox vaccine was eventually created by English surgeon Edward Jenner in 1796. But the groundwork for public acceptance had been laid eighty years earlier by Mather, who wrote sermons and pamphlets “proselytizing for the practice among the medical community in Boston,” Johnson writes. 

“Let us beseech those that have called this method ‘the work of the devil’,” he wrote in a letter to the Boston Gazette in October of 1721, “les they be found blasphemous of a most merciful and wonderful work of God.” 

Nick Quaranta got the COVID vaccine in April after former President Trump encouraged the public to roll up its sleeves.
Nick Quaranta got the COVID vaccine in April after former President Trump encouraged the public to roll up its sleeves.
Gabriella Bass

In response, Mather faced not just disagreements but violence. In November of 1721, somebody threw a grenade through the window of his Boston home, with a note that read, “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’ll inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you!” 

But he did change some minds, most notably Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston, who inoculated his 6-year-old son and two slaves. Others weren’t so impressed, like Dr. William Douglass, who called inoculation “rash, sometimes hazardous, and always dubious.” (Douglass, coincidentally, was young, liberal, and one of the few men in Boston with a medical degree.) 

Three hundred years later, vaccine hesitancy continues — despite estimates that show inoculations have more than doubled life expectancy over the past 80 years, preventing 10.5 million cases of infectious illness each year and 33,000 deaths. One in four Americans claim they won’t be getting the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest Gallup poll, and 78 percent of them say they likely won’t change their minds. But, just like in the past, it’s religious leaders who have the power to persuade groups like these to vax up rather than medical experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

Extra Life

Among religious Americans who are hesitant about the vaccine, 44 percent said pro-vaccine messaging from religious leaders could change their minds, and 26 percent of non-religious “hesitant” people said the same, according to a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Interfaith Youth Core. Recently, a rising number of faith leaders have been encouraging their followers to get the COVID vaccine, including Franklin Graham, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jerry Falwell Jr., and the Dalai Lama. Pope Francis, who got the shot back in January, even suggested that getting vaccinated was a “moral” obligation. 

Celebrities and political leaders, too, can make a difference. In the 18th century, novelist Charles Dickens and Russian empress Catherine the Great helped sway public opinion about the smallpox vaccine. Today, public figures like Dolly Parton, Buzz Aldrin and former President Trump have come out publicly in support of the COVID shot. One Staten Island man said he got the jab after seeing Trump on the front page of The Post in April, encouraging the public to roll up their sleeves. 

“As soon as Trump said it, I was convinced to get it,” said Nick Quaranta, 42. 

For Johnson, these moments are all part of the great historical persuasion, encouraging people to adopt behaviors that save and extend our lives. 

“Important breakthroughs in health don’t just have to be discovered,” he writes, “they also have to be argued for, championed, defended.”