Unveiling the overlooked contributions of Onesimus and Lady Montagu in the fight against smallpox

Posted on: 12 April 2024 by Dr Carl Larsen in April 2024 Posts

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Earlier this month our latest inclusivity exhibit opened in the Harold Cohen Library quiet room. It features two people you are unlikely to know but each made a significant contribution to medicine.

The official eradication of smallpox, 44 years ago this May, stands as a triumph of modern medicine, but the journey to this achievement is marked by a complex history, characterised by exploitation, bioethical transgressions and marginalisation. Amidst the acclaim of figures like Edward Jenner, two lesser-known individuals played pivotal roles in shaping the course of smallpox history. Onesimus, an enslaved African man, and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an English aristocrat, made significant contributions that deserve recognition.

Onesimus was an enslaved African man owned by the Puritan minister Cotton Mather in colonial America. He played a crucial role in introducing the concept of inoculation to the Western world. In 1716, Onesimus shared his knowledge of variolation, a traditional African practice, with Mather, who subsequently promoted it in Boston during the smallpox epidemic of 1721. Variolation involved deliberately infecting individuals with smallpox to induce immunity, a precursor to the modern concept of vaccination. As with many enslaved people, we do not know Onesimus’ birth name or place.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was an influential figure in 18th-century England. She played a pivotal role in popularising variolation in Europe. Having observed the practice during her travels in the Ottoman Empire, where it was used to combat smallpox, Lady Montagu became an advocate for inoculation. In 1721, she had her own children inoculated, championing the procedure's safety and efficacy. Her advocacy helped pave the way for the acceptance of variolation in Europe, ultimately leading to widespread smallpox vaccination.

Image taken directly from Edward Jenner, Inquiry into the causes and effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, 1800. Special Collections and Archives, reference SPEC M.1.17/C.

A British medic, Dr, John Quier, along with many other physicians, began promoting variolation as a means to combat smallpox outbreaks. He initiated large-scale inoculations, in 1768 during a smallpox epidemic in Jamaica. Employed by slave owners, Quier administered inoculations for smallpox, regardless of his scientific intentions. It's crucial to note that slave owners had the ultimate authority in this matter, with no consideration given to the consent of the enslaved people, or physicians.

The contributions of Onesimus and Lady Montagu were instrumental in the fight against smallpox. Their advocacy and promotion of variolation laid the groundwork for the development of vaccines, ultimately leading to the eradication of smallpox in 1980. Despite their often overlooked roles in history, Onesimus and Lady Montagu's efforts were indispensable in saving countless lives and shaping the course of medical science. The historical exploitation of enslaved black people in science and medicine is well-documented and is likely to form the theme of our next exhibit.

The exhibit is the work of third-year students Kodie McDonald, Obimobi Onyeukwu-Onyenso and Dr Carl Larsen from the DeCoL-SoLS-Advocates. We are particularly grateful for funding for the project from the HLS EDI&W fund, archival materials from the Special Collections and Archives, and to Professor Bernard Brabin (emeritus Professor LSTM) for his expertise, advice and generous loan of materials.