Never forget that the first vaccines came from tests on slaves


In response to the growing spread of monkeypox, public health officials are opening locked stocks of smallpox vaccines for the first time since the 1970s to control the spread of the virus. But here’s something to consider: These vaccines are a direct result of slavery.

The story of people falling ill and dying from epidemics is timeless. But the practice of vaccinating people to prevent the spread of infectious diseases is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States and Europe. The first vaccine in the United States was introduced by an enslaved African named Onesimus in 1721. To prevent the spread of smallpox in colonial Boston, Zabdiel Boylston, a physician, followed Onesimus’ instructions and took the lymph, the colorless liquid into a smallpox vesicle, and injected it into the arm of his son and two enslaved people in his house.

This process, known as variolation, infects a susceptible person with the smallpox virus in the hope that they develop a milder version and survive. In Boston in the 18th century, people considered her superstitious and scary. Many initially refused to be vaccinated, but Boylston experimented on other slaves and used their results to illustrate the effectiveness of the procedure.


A legacy of this work is that the practice of vaccination in the United States cannot be divorced from the history of slavery.

Vaccination against smallpox required experiments on human bodies to provide proof that it worked. European empires looked to oppressed populations to advance medical science. When smallpox spread throughout the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean and South America, King Carlos IV launched the world’s first vaccination campaign in 1803. At the time, medical officials usually carried the vaccine against smallpox by placing him between two pieces of glass, but the treacherous journey across the temperamental Atlantic Ocean made this impossible. According to physician-historian José G. Rigau-Pérez, Spanish authorities deliberately infected orphans with the virus so that their bodies would incubate it. As part of a royal expedition, 22 orphans were divided into pairs, and every nine or 10 days another pair was infected with the virus to produce the vaccine material. Essentially, orphans have become vaccine mules.


As medical officials in Puerto Rico awaited the arrival of the royal expedition, the smallpox epidemic exploded in the Caribbean. Government officials forcibly removed infected family members from their homes to quarantine them in a remote part of the island. Francisco Oller, chief surgeon at the Royal Military Hospital, had learned that the English doctor Edward Jenner had discovered that cowpox could be used as a vaccine and that a doctor in Saint Thomas had used it as a defense against spread of the virus. . The doctor sent the vaccine material between two pieces of glass to Oller, who used it to vaccinate his two sons. One of his sons contracted the virus and later produced the lymph which was used to vaccinate other people on the island.

Having witnessed the lymph on the boy’s body, the Governor of Puerto Rico then requested that an extensive public vaccination be administered throughout San Juan, the capital. The governor, in turn, demanded more lymph from St. Thomas officials, who sent it not only on glass but also, according to Rigau-Pérez, “on the arm of a recently vaccinated little slave girl” to make sure the vaccine arrived. without issue.

When smallpox resurfaced in the United States during the Civil War, the Union and Confederate armies lacked vaccine materials to protect soldiers. Army medical officials on both sides infected enslaved infants and newly emancipated children with smallpox and harvested vaccine material from their bodies.

Confederate physician James Bolton traveled across Virginia to infect slaves with smallpox in hopes their bodies would produce the lymph that could be used as a vaccine. After the patients developed a mild version of smallpox and began to recover, Bolton “retraced in an effort to collect the scabs”. According to a surviving report, “the result of the expedition was about eight hundred scabs, mostly from healthy black children.” Similarly, in Benton Barracks, Missouri, a northern doctor infected a group of formerly enslaved children in a refugee camp with the virus to harvest lymph to inoculate Union soldiers.

Evidence of the use of enslaved populations to harvest vaccine material does not appear in the bold headlines of 19th century medical journals, nor is it easily detectable by performing keyword searches in the archives. on line. Documenting the contribution of slavery to the world did not matter to many of these medical and political leaders. They were more invested in determining what worked – but in the process they unwittingly recorded their own inhuman violations and practices.

The modern world depends on vaccinations for a range of diseases, eagerly doling them out and praising their effectiveness, failing to recognize that the onset of these medical interventions can be traced to slavery. It is no coincidence that the practice of artificially triggering the immune system to create antibodies developed at the same time that millions of people were held in bondage and had little or no say in what was done to their own bodies.

Jim Downs is a historian and professor of Civil War studies at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Penn., and author of “Diseases of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine” (Harvard University Press, 2021).


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