Moments in Black History: How an enslaved African man brought inoculation to Western medicine
As part of JD | Finish Line’s commitment to act against racism, bigotry, hate and violence, we choose to honor Black History Month in an educational way.
Each week in February, we will feature a piece from a Black writer examining significant moments in Black history. We hope you find this series informative and enlightening.
My uncle was a pharmacist in Ethiopia. He studied for years, often working two jobs to make ends meet while in school. Not long after graduating from pharmacy school, he and countless others had to escape the communist military government that had taken power in Ethiopia.
His journey landed him in Dallas, TX, and a job as a cab driver. The plan was to resume his previous vocation as a pharmacist, but that plan never materialized. Educational requirements, language and financial barriers proved to be a hurdle too high.
His story isn’t unique to the African diaspora in Western countries. Cab drivers that were scientists in their home country, gas station attendants that were accountants or engineers in their respective home countries. And so on, and so forth.
My uncle worked in the cab industry, achieving a measure of success running his own fleet of 20+ town cars before retiring. He never tired of telling us —for those of us that would listen— about the influence Africans have had in the health field. When Tedros Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian biologist, became the Director-General of the World Health Organization, my uncle crowed about this achievement for months.
But as far as I can remember, my uncle’s favorite historical character has always been an enslaved west African man brought to Massachusetts in the early 1700s during the horrific practice of kidnapping Black men and women from Africa and bringing them to North America and South America as slave labor. A minister who endeavored to convert arriving slaves to Christianity named him Onesimus. History records that the minister, Cotton Mather, was suspicious of Onesimus, presumably because of his noticeable intelligence. (When my uncle tells this part of the story, he always smiles.)
Boston, a center of the early slave trade, found itself suffering through a smallpox outbreak. Onesimus informed Cotton Mather that he was immune to smallpox because of an African operation that resulted in immunity. Mather was immediately skeptical, especially since he was already wary of Onesimus’s intelligence.
Onesimus’s “operation” consisted of creating an open wound on his arm, and rubbing pus from an infected person into this open arm wound. What Onesimus described wasn’t a vaccination per say, rather this procedure activated his immune system and made him less susceptible to smallpox.
Mather, intrigued but distrustful of Onesimus, conducted no further research, at least not for a while. As smallpox continued to spread around in Boston, Mather inquired with other slave ships to see if other slaves had ever described Onesimus’s procedure, and several positive responses later, he knew there was something to Onesimus’ story. Mather’s research discovered this procedure in the Middle East and as far as China.
My uncle tends to scowl as he describes how Mather and other white colonists distrusted this Black man’s theory so much so that they attributed this procedure as nothing more than “devilish rites”. In due time, Mather came to believe in Onesimus’ procedure, but the medical community remained opposed to the idea that a Black man could develop a medical procedure to help with the smallpox epidemic.
Mather managed to convince a Boston physician to test the inoculation procedure. The physician inoculated over 200 people, of which only 6 people died — a 1-in-40 death ratio. Before deploying Onesimus’s inoculation procedure, the smallpox death ratio in Boston was 1-in-7 for people who didn’t undergo the inoculation procedure. A stunning statistic, by any measure.
The smallpox outbreak claimed the lives of hundreds in Boston, but Onesimus’s procedure helped to usher in the era of a smallpox vaccination, though it would come decades later. Little is known of Onesimus’s fate, but we do know that history, at least the history we learn in this country, hardly talks about his contribution to medical history. Smallpox is the only infectious disease that has been completely eradicated (per the World Health Organization, 1980).
Historically, Black people in America have been hesitant to trust the medical community, and for very valid and real reasons. They have been used as human guinea pigs for various medical concoctions. And for the majority of these tests, Black people were used without being informed about the medicine’s contents. More ghoulishly, Black people were never informed about any side effects, either short or long term.
So when I was recently selected to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, my first call was to my uncle. He assured me that based on what he had read, this was a safe shot to take. We chatted a bit about Onesimus, too.
“Did I ever tell you what ‘Onesimus’s name means?” he asked me. “It’s a biblical name that means ‘useful.’”
Mike Taddow is a Dallas-based freelance writer, a lifelong sneaker enthusiast and Air Jordan III aficionado.