First Culture

Meet Onesimus, the 17th century slave who introduced Inoculation

Meet Onesimus, the 17th century slave who introduced Inoculation

Named after a biblical slave who fled his home to Apostle Paul by his master, Cotton Mather -A puritan minister – Onesimus was an African-born man and medical pioneer whose contributions from African Medicine formed the basis for inoculation.

He was gifted by his congregation to Cotton Mather in Boston who in his Journal described him -and which is quite the only major description we get of him- as “a very likely Slave; a young Man who is a Negro of a promising aspect of temper” (Mather, vol. 1, 579) and was married with a Son, Onesimulus.

Five years before he had tried to purchase his freedom from his Master, the slave had introduced him to inoculation. Cotton had asked him if he had ever been infected with small pox and he answered “Yes and No”. He had told an amused Cotton that he had -back home in Africa- weathered a centuries old process that left him forever immune to small pox by taking some of it. He further described the process to entail extracting the germs from an infected person and implanting it into the skin of a healthy person, to produce immunity in the healthy person and that it was only undertaken by people with courage. 

When the smallpox epidemic hit in 1721, infecting roughly half of Boston’s 11,000 residents, an uncertain Cotton who carrying in his head visions of the medical degree he had almost acquired had (after asking Doctor Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with Onesimus’ ideas) presented the American society with a new -and perhaps the only- way of curing the epidemic.

And although the epidemic was sweeping through the city, a terrified Cotton had himself written in his diary “Boston burying-places never filled so fast” about an earlier visit of the disease, although panic was spreading about the contagion and over 240 people had been inoculated. Nevertheless, his solution was met with hostility from the people, hostility born of the realization -because Cotton stated- that it was introduced by an African slave, confirmed by a number of slaves around Boston and that it was an ancient African practice.


The resistance was fueled by conceptions that were both medical and religious. Religiously, Onesimus was a slave who had boldly refused to accept Christianity and gotten away with it, the people of Boston likewise believed small pox was a plague from God and did not want to interfere with it. Medically, they were perplexed at the irony that was Cotton’s solution, as to how taking in some of a disease could somehow mean immunity from it. They suspected that it could further spread the disease.

But most of the rage was stoked by race and every other form -religious, medical- was a slice of this full piece, a slice of the conventional belief that blacks, that slaves could not possibly be capable of anything besides being slaves.

1721 Boston was a volatile city, evanescent, a city willing to disappear with the slightest poke, a city tilting. A few years earlier, Boston had witnessed the Salem witch trials (the greatest of all time) which was largely perpetrated by Cotton Mather and which shook her to her foundations and so the city was against him partly because of this. The city had every reason -by her standards-to be against him.

And this opposition grew till it became a bomb sliding through Cotton’s window by a terrorist accompanied with a note that read “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You; I’l inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you” and yet everyone knew that the terrorist had wanted him dead -although because of his ideas of inoculation, but also subtly- because of Salem.

Victory came in the long run for the men when only six of the over 240 people who were inoculated had died.  The city accepted the results with shrugged shoulders and bowed heads, Cotton had been right and he had been right because the slave had been right, the black African irreligious slave.

Reluctantly, Bostonians and Americans generally adopted the African practice of inoculation, even in future smallpox outbreaks, Cotton and Doctor Boylston were lauded with praise but little – if anything at all- was thereafter said of Onesimus.

In Cottons diary, he writes about exactly how the slave had presented the idea of inoculation to him.

Onesimus had loosely said “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”



References: Hutchins Centre

Images: Emaleege Elizabeth



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Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke

Senior Editor working out of East Africa.

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Meet Onesimus, the 17th century slave who introduced Inoculation

by Caleb Somtochukwu Okereke time to read: 3 min