Oxford AASC: Photo Essay

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PHOTO ESSAY

Africans in America

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Onesimus

Mortality from smallpox and variolation, 1759. The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Franklin B, Heberden W. Some Account of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America: Together with Plain Instructions By which any Person may be enabled to perform the Operation and conduct the Patient through the Distemper. London: W. Strahan, 1759.

Onesimus (d. 1717) was probably born in Africa in the late seventeenth century, though nothing specific about the circumstances of his birth is known. He was purchased as a slave in 1706 by the congregants of Boston's Old North Church and given to the church's minister, the Reverend Cotton Mather. Little of Onesimus's personal life is known outside of the occasional mention of his activities in Cotton Mather's personal diary. Onesimus purchased his freedom from Mather in 1716, but this manumission depended on Onesimus continuing to carry out chores for the Mather family whenever needed.

Despite the general lack of information surrounding Onesimus's life as a slave and free man in 18th century America, Onesimus's story survives thanks to his contribution to the realm of public health. In 1716, Onesimus shared with Mather the common African practice of variolation, that is, purposely infecting a person with smallpox so that they become immune to later reinfection. This precursor to vaccination was met by harsh public resistance prior to the 1721 Boston smallpox outbreak but, at the outbreak's conclusion, the 600 Bostonians who underwent the procedure were seven times more likely to have survived than those who contracted the disease and had not been inoculated. Variolation, as described by Onesimus, went on to become the standard method for the prevention of smallpox until nearly the beginning of the 19th century.

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