n this image provided by the American Ancestors & New England Historic Genealogical Society, a digitized copy of a page from a handwritten 18th century diary by the Rev. Ebenezer Storer, during a period of smallpox, in Boston, shows a March 1764 entry that includes a prayer Storer wrote after arranging to have his own children inoculated. In the prayer, Storer praises the discovery of means used in the late 18th century to treat the disease. (American Ancestors & New England Historic Genealogical Society via AP)

n this image provided by the American Ancestors & New England Historic Genealogical Society, a digitized copy of a page from a handwritten 18th century diary by the Rev. Ebenezer Storer, during a period of smallpox, in Boston, shows a March 1764 entry that includes a prayer Storer wrote after arranging to have his own children inoculated. In the prayer, Storer praises the discovery of means used in the late 18th century to treat the disease. (American Ancestors & New England Historic Genealogical Society via AP)

Old records shed new light on smallpox outbreaks in 1700s

In April 1721 an English ship, the HMS Seahorse, brought smallpox to Boston

BOSTON (AP) — A highly contagious disease originating far from America’s shores triggers deadly outbreaks that spread rapidly, infecting the masses. Shots are available, but a divided public agonizes over getting jabbed.

Sound familiar?

Newly digitized records — including a minister’s diary scanned and posted online by Boston’s Congregational Library and Archives — are shedding fresh light on devastating outbreaks of smallpox that hit the city in the 1700s.

And three centuries later, the parallels with the coronavirus pandemic are uncanny.

“How little we’ve changed,” said CLA archivist Zachary Bodnar, who led the digitization effort, working closely with the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

“The fact that we’re finding these similarities in the records of our past is a very interesting parallel,” Bodnar said in an interview. “Sometimes the more we learn, the more we’re still the same, I guess.”

Smallpox was eradicated, but not before it sickened and killed millions worldwide. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949. In 1980, the World Health Organization’s decision-making arm declared it eradicated, and no cases of naturally occurring smallpox have been reported since.

But in April 1721, after an English ship, the HMS Seahorse, brought it to Boston, it was a clear and present danger. By winter of 1722, it would infect more than half of the city’s population of 11,000 and kill 850.

Much earlier outbreaks, also imported from Europe, killed Native Americans indiscriminately in the 1600s. Now, digitized church records are helping to round out the picture of how the colonists coped when it was their turn to endure pestilence.

The world’s first proper vaccination didn’t occur until the end of that century, when an English country doctor named Edward Jenner inoculated an 8-year-old boy against smallpox in 1796.

Before then, doctors used inoculation, or variolation as it was often called, introducing a trace amount of the smallpox virus into the skin. The procedure, or variations of it, had been practiced since ancient times in Asia. Jenner’s pioneering of vaccination, using instead a less lethal strain of the virus that infected cows, was a huge scientific advance.

Yet just as with COVID-19 vaccines in 2021, some took a skeptical view of smallpox inoculations in the 18th century, digitized documents show. To be sure, there was ample reason to worry: Early smallpox treatments, while effective in many who were inoculated, sickened or even killed others.

The Rev. Cotton Mather, one of the era’s most influential ministers, had actively promoted inoculation. In a sign of how resistant some colonists were to the new technology, someone tossed an explosive device through his window in November 1721.

Fortunately, it didn’t explode, but researchers at Harvard say this menacing message was attached: “Cotton Mather, you dog, damn you! I’ll inoculate you with this; with a pox to you.’’

Among the recently digitized Congregational Church records are handwritten diary entries scrawled by the Rev. Ebenezer Storer, a pastor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On March 11, 1764, as smallpox once again raged through Boston, Storer penned a prayer in his journal after arranging to have his own children inoculated.

The deeply devout Storer, his diary shows, had faith in science.

“Blessed be thy name for any discoveries that have been made to soften the severity of the distemper. Grant thy blessing on the means used,” he wrote.

Three weeks later, Storer gave thanks to God “for his great mercy to me in recovering my dear children and the others in my family from the smallpox.”

For Bodnar, the archivist, it’s a testament to the insights church records can contain.

“They’re fascinating,” he said. “They’re essentially town records — they not only tell the story of the daily accounting of the church, but also the story of what people were doing at that time and what was going on.”

By The Associated Press

United Statesvaccines

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget in Edmonton on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta launches COVID vaccine lottery with million-dollar prizes to encourage uptake

The premier says the lottery will offer three prizes worth $1 million a piece, as well as other prizes

Dharmesh Goradia, and his daughter Vidhi and wife Chaitali, at the 2017 festival for the Godess Durga, held at the Golden Circle. (Photo contributed)
Draft curriculum misses the mark for central Alberta Hindu society

Meeting scheduled with Alberta Education officials

Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Air Canada says it will recall more than 2,600 employees who were furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta’s tourism sector hurt by COVID-19 pandemic: ATB Financial

Between border closures, public health measures and hesitancy to travel, Alberta’s tourism… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

A man wears a face mask as he walks by a sign for a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, May 16, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Canada paid a premium to get doses from Pfizer earlier than planned

OTTAWA — Canada paid a premium to get more than 250,000 doses… Continue reading

The Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, B.C., is shown in this 1930 handout photo. HO — Deschatelets-NDC Archives
Calls grow for Ottawa to review settlement decisions for residential school survivors

Lawyer Teri Lynn Bougie still cries when she talks about the final… Continue reading

Syringes are readied at a COVID-19 mobile vaccination clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, Friday, April 30, 2021 in Montreal. Most of the federal contracts for COVID-19 vaccines allow for Canada to donate some of its doses to other countries or international aid organizations and in at least three cases, for the doses to be resold.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada’s vaccine contracts allow for doses to be donated, in some cases resold

OTTAWA — Most of the federal contracts for COVID-19 vaccines allow for… Continue reading

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, responds to the report on the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in Vancouver, on Monday June 3, 2019. As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk'emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Two sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

VANCOUVER — As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after… Continue reading

A woman sits and weeps at the scene of Sunday's hate-motivated vehicle attack in London, Ont. on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. Four members of a family in London, Ont., are set to be buried today. The public has been invited to help celebrate the lives of Talat Afzaal, 74, her son Salman Afzaal, 46, his wife Madiha Salman, 44, and their 15-year-old daughter Yumna Salman.THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Geoff Robins
Funeral to be held today for London family killed in attack

LONDON, Ont. — Four members of a Muslim family killed in what… Continue reading

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden listen to United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson deliver opening remarks at a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, United Kingdom Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau to discuss foreign policy with G7 leaders at second day of summit meeting

CARBIS BAY, CORNWALL, ENGLAND — Foreign policy is on the agenda for… Continue reading

Most Read