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