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Lessons from Black History: Onesimus - The African Man Who Saved Boston from Small Pox

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

I first fell in love with medicine when studying for my GCSE in history. It was quite unusual but at my school the syllabus centred on the history of medicine. From day one I was hooked. We went through the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, right up until the present day. I was in awe by all the progress that had been made throughout time for the advancement of health. I knew that I wanted to become a doctor and join that legacy.

I was inspired by a variety of groups and individuals in those history lessons. However, when I reflect on the experience I realise that the curriculum was extremely Eurocentric and that few, if any of the people that I was learning about, looked like me. As I have grown older and begun to shy away from sticking only to what is taught didactically, I have learnt more about the rich contribution that black communities around the world have made to medicine. Our achievements should always be celebrated, but Black History Month is the perfect time to put them front and centre.

As I write this blog post I sit here with extremely sore arms having just had my flu vaccine in one arm, and a COVID 19 booster in the other. Thinking about vaccination takes me back to my history class when I learnt about Edward Jenner, an English physician who pioneered the concept of vaccination and first demonstrated the smallpox vaccine in 1796. Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccination had always been intrinsically linked in my brain. How mind-blowing it was then to learn recently about a man named Onesimus, and his instrumental role in mitigating the impact of a smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1721... with inoculation!

What is fascinating about Onemisus is that he was an African-born slave. He was placed in the possession of a man named Cotton Mather and letters written by Mather to the Royal Society demonstrate that Onesimus educated Mather on the subject of inoculation in the 1710s. He explained how introducing matter from someone who had already been infected with smallpox into the system protected them from its most deadly effects. When a smallpox outbreak occurred in Boston in 1721 Mather pushed for inoculation based on the knowledge that he had learnt from Onesimus. This was vital in stemming the outbreak and for the introduction of subsequent vaccinations. Today smallpox has been eradicated. Onesimus’ example is very important as it shows an African man explaining the process of inoculation to an American. It means that inoculation was a practice that Onesimus was familiar with from home, from Africa. It is not quite certain where on the continent that Onesimus was born, but what is certain is that inoculation is part of our history. For more on Onesimus and the African history of inoculation, please click here.

This is just one example of a black contribution to medicine but when we look beyond the mainstream, we can find examples of black excellence everywhere. I may have fallen in love with medicine because of European examples of achievement, but digging a bit deeper and learning about our community's impact makes me love medicine even more. When I see myself reflected in past achievements, it makes it that much easier to envision myself as part of those that are to come.

Written by Dr Katy Chisenga-Phillipps



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