When a deadly virus divided the American colony due to smallpox inoculation, Benjamin Franklin supported science


Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists Facing a deadly smallpox outbreakTheir different reactions constitute a terrible, foresighted, objective lesson in the world today, which was also destroyed by the virus and split by vaccination three centuries later.

As Microbiologist with Franklin Scholar, We see some similarities between then and now, which can help the government, journalists and the rest of us deal with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.

Smallpox hits Boston

Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. At least 3000 years, It was rampant in Boston and eventually caused a sensation More than half of the urban population. The virus killed approximately 1 in 13 residents – But the number of deaths may be higher, because the lack of complex epidemiology makes it impossible to determine the cause of all deaths.

What’s new, at least for Boston, is a simple procedure that can protect people from disease. It is called “smallpox” or “vaccination” and involves deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “substance” in the victim’s scab or pus, using a needle to inject the substance into the skin. This method usually causes mild illness and leads to a state of “immunity” to smallpox.

Even today, the exact mechanism is Little is known There is not much research on variation. Vaccination through the skin seems to activate the immune response, resulting in milder symptoms and less transmission, which may be due to the lower route of infection and lower dose.Because it relies on activating the immune response with live variola variola virus, vaccination is different from modern vaccination Eradicate smallpox Use a much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.

Vaccination therapy originated in Asia and Africa, and later became widely known in Boston Thanks to a man named Onesimus. By 1721, Onesimus was enslaved, Owned by the most influential man in Boston, Rev. Cotton Mather.

Mainly called the Minister of the Congregational Council, Mather is also a scientist Particularly interested in biology.When he pays attention Onesimus told him “He underwent an operation, which made him suffer from smallpox and will never allow him to suffer from smallpox; adding that it is often used in West Africa, where he is from.”

Inspired by Animus’ message, Mather collaborated with a Boston doctor, Zabdir Boylston, Scientific research on the effectiveness of vaccination is worthy of praise in the 21st century. They found that of the approximately 300 people vaccinated in Boylston, 2% have diedIn contrast, the proportion of people who naturally contract smallpox is close to 15%.

The result seems clear: vaccination can help fight smallpox. Science prevailed in the pastor’s mind. But others did not believe it.

Cause controversy

A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own pain-an insatiable desire for controversy. Franklin didn’t like Mather, he began to criticize vaccination in his newspaper “New England”.

An article in August 1721 tried to make readers feel guilty about resisting vaccination. If someone gets vaccinated and then spreads the disease to other people, and other people die from it, Article asked, “Whose hand does their blood need?” The same article went on to say that “epidemic plagues” like smallpox are “judgments from the angry and unhappy God.”

Contrary to the research of Mather and Boylston, Courant’s article is not for discovery, but for spreading suspicion and distrust. The argument that vaccination may help spread the disease raises some theoretically possible things—at least if simple preventive measures are not taken—but it seems digress. If vaccination works, is this small risk worthwhile, especially because widespread vaccination greatly reduces the likelihood of one person infecting another?

Franklin, Courant’s editor, had a younger brother apprentice to him at the time-a teenager named Benjamin.

Historians don’t know which side the young Franklin was on in 1721–or whether he was on the side–but his subsequent vaccination method provided the world’s current deadly virus and divergent responses to vaccines a few years later. lesson.

independent thinking

You might think that James’ brother would also oppose vaccination. after all, Think like family and other people you identify with It is a universal tendency of mankind.

His ability to overcome this tendency shows Benjamin Franklin’s independent thinking abilityAs a writer, scientist and politician, this asset will benefit a lot in his life. Although insisting on social expectations will bring certain advantages in certain situations, it is also valuable to be able to get rid of these norms in times of danger. We believe that the most successful people are those who, like Franklin, possess the intellectual flexibility to choose between persistence and independence.

Truth, not victory

What happened next showed that Franklin was not like his brother — and many experts and politicians of the 21st century — who was More interested in discovering the truth Than in Prove he is right.

Perhaps the vaccination controversy in 1721 made him understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continued to plague the United States in 2021: When people choose sides, progress will be affected. tribe, Whether it is a long-term existence or newly formed around a problem, you can put your energy into Demonize the other side And gather yourself. They did not attack the problem, but attacked each other.

In fact, Franklin became convinced that vaccination was an effective way to prevent smallpox. Years later, he plans to get his son Francis to be vaccinated after he has recovered from diarrhea. But before the vaccination, the 4-year-old boy was infected with smallpox and died in 1736. Franklin cited the rumors that Francis died due to vaccination and pointed out that such rumors might prevent parents from allowing their children to accept this procedure. Franklin made a straightforward point, explaining that the children had “Infected with distemper in a common way of infection.”

When Franklin wrote his autobiography in 1771, he reflected on this tragedy and used it to advocate vaccination. He explained that he “Regret and regret“Not to vaccinate the boy, and added, “I mentioned this to omit the parents of that operation, assuming that if the child died from the operation, they would never forgive themselves; my example shows that regret may be the same. Therefore, you should choose a safer one. “

Scientific point of view

The last lesson in 1721 is related to the importance of a true scientific viewpoint, which encompasses science, facts, and objectivity.

In 1721, vaccination was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians, and this life-saving method was not without fatal risks. In order to solve this paradox, several doctors carefully collected data and compared the number of deaths due to natural smallpox with the number of deaths after smallpox vaccination. Boylston basically conducted what today’s researchers call clinical studies on the effectiveness of vaccination.Knowing that he needs to prove the usefulness of vaccination in different groups of people, he Report in a short book How did he vaccinate nearly 300 people and carefully record their symptoms and conditions in days and weeks.

Recent emergency use authorization MRNA-based with Viral vector vaccine COVID-19 has produced a large number of Hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, Especially on various social media. Like vaccination in the 18th century, these vaccines represent new scientific vaccination methods, but these methods are based on decades of scientific and clinical research.

We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would hope that his example would guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists, and everyone else in making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist who respected the evidence and ultimately the truth.

When it comes to deadly viruses and divergent responses to preventive treatment, Franklin knows exactly what he will do. Today there is no need for a visionary like Franklin to receive evidence from medical science.


Mark Canada, Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, Indiana University Kokomo with Christian Shore, Dean of the Faculty of Science, Professor of Microbiology, Indiana University Kokomo

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