Robert Azzi: ‘People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop’

For the Monitor
Published: 3/22/2020 6:00:17 AM

In the early 18th century, at a time when smallpox was a global scourge, Puritan preacher Cotton Mather – best known for his inflammatory role in stoking the hysteria that drove the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 believed he had found a way to counter the pernicious infectious disease that killed millions of people.

Mather, when he was called as preacher to his first church in 1706, had been given a gift by his congregation: an enslaved African Muslim man whom he named Onesimus.

Around 1716 Onesimus told Mather that he didn’t fear plagues like smallpox because he had been “inoculated,” and described the process as: “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”

Mather, a learned man in spite of his prejudices, used the knowledge learned from Onesimus – supported by other foreign accounts – to publicly advocate for mass inoculation when a smallpox epidemic struck Boston in 1721.

When he approached Harvard University for support – where his father Increase was president – the Divinity School opposed inoculation because they believed only sinners got smallpox, and the Medical School opposed it because it wasn’t “Western” medicine.

Mather persisted, and was allowed to test his theory on a small sample of Boston’s population. His experimental group of 242 patients had only six deaths (approximately 2.5%), compared to 844 deaths within the 5,889 non-inoculated smallpox patients (approximately 14.3%).

While Mather acted on Onesimus’s knowledge of smallpox – perhaps saving thousands of lives in the process – Mather in the end failed to fully acknowledge the humanity of the enslaved African who saved so many Bostonians.

In the end, Mather viewed Onesimus as just the Other; another enslaved, non-white, non-Christian human – another person less than he.

Today, 300 years later – as anxiety leads many to see the Other as threats, as potential sources of infection – it may be time for many Americans to reflect upon their lack of acknowledgment of what the world has offered America, from its best and its brightest to lettuce pickers in California and apple pickers in New Hampshire.

While witnessing the gifts of immigrants from Onesimus to Albert Einstein to Sergey Brin, we too often fail to acknowledge the full beauty and diversity of America – and how the diversity empowers us.

We, too often, fail to acknowledge full appreciation for what immigrants contribute to our health and welfare, to liberty and justice, to our understanding that all men are created equal.

Today, as we confront the coronavirus, one of the most serious economic, political, and health crises this country has ever faced, too many Americans – like those in the Harvard Divinity School and Medical School in 1721– choose to ignore the threat.

Today, too many Americans lead lives of fear and ignorance, choosing to lead lives enmeshed in a viral world of racism and xenophobia, in bigotry and conspiracy, denying the existence, contributions and humanity of those unlike themselves.

There are Americans who believe (falsely) that the virus originated from a Chinese biological warfare laboratory or that it came from a George Soros-owned laboratory in Wuhan.

Others falsely believe it’s not worse than the common cold; others falsely believe it’s all a hoax. Others, unbelievably, believe that the Trump administration is doing a good job.

These are all stubbornly ignorant people.

In 2018, Trump disbanded the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health and Security, which was established precisely to identify threats to America. He has proposed reducing funding for the CDC. This week he refuses to use the powers given to him under the Defense Production Act to immediately increase production of needed ventilators, face masks, gowns and other needed supplies.

America has been weeks late in testing, weeks late in deploying assets, weeks late in assuring America’s medical community and hospitals that they’ll get all the resources they need.

And that is because Trump is an incompetent person more interested in re-election than in the heath and welfare of the nation. He is supported by ignorant people and people more interested in power and profit than in America’s security.

People like Sen. Richard Burr who, after saying last month that America was “better prepared than ever before” to confront the virus, sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock before markets plunged. Three other senators – Dianne Feinstein, James Inhofe and Kelly Loeffler – also sold major holdings.

In 2018, in conversation with Ben Shapiro, Fox News opinion host Tucker Carlson said, “ ‘Is diversity [America’s] strength?’ And of course, like so much they say, it’s not only untrue, it’s the opposite of what is true. It is never true that diversity is your strength. I’m for all kinds of diversity, but they’re not our strengths.”

What, I wonder, does Carlson consider America’s strength?

Day after day, as the public’s hunger for guidance and information expands, Americans are treated to commentary and interviews with guest scientists, health care administrators and medical professionals; increasingly those guests, upon whom our lives may depend, are originally from China, Vietnam. Bangladesh, India, Ukraine, Scotland, Mexico and many other countries.

They are black, brown, yellow, white. They include Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and secular-humanists.

They include us all.

They are America.

Today, Friday, as I write, America edges toward full-blown hysteria over the spread of the coronavirus and the people upon whom we should be relying for leadership and information are not present.

Today, as a pandemic presses down upon us – an explosive outbreak that threatens the lives of millions of people, threatens our social order, threatens our very existence – I believe that in the end, in the midst of the incompetence of our government, we will be saved by our diversity.

Last Monday, in an operation performed at Concord Hospital by Dr. Stephen Fox of Concord Orthopedics, my left knee was totally replaced. It’s not an uncommon operation; what was special is that it turns out it was the last elective surgical procedure done at Concord Hospital for the time being.

Elective surgeries are being postponed not because there isn’t the space to accommodate patients but because the hospital and all hospitals nationally are compelled to preserve their store of basic supplies, like gowns, face masks and eye protections for future, non-elective, emergencies.

Had I been less fortunate I likely would be hobbling around the Seacoast for several more months rather that planning to conquer Mount Monadnock before Thanksgiving.

On Monday, in an operating theatre in Concord, in a diverse room where Jews and Christians operated on a Muslim, where gays and straights, whites and non-whites, operated in harmony to share their knowledge and their gifts, America was present.

That is who we are.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at His columns are archived at

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