Born in Africa, Onesimus was a slave of Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister in Boston. When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Boston in 1721, Onesimus informed his master about an inoculation procedure practiced in Africa. The centuries-old practice was practiced throughout Africa and involved the extraction of material from the pustule of an infected person and, using a thorn, scratching it into the skin of the unaffected person. The deliberate introduction of smallpox gives the inoculated person immunity from the disease. In some cases, there is no reaction while a mild non-fatal form of the disease may occur in others.
Although inoculation was considered to be extremely dangerous, Cotton Mather was steadfast in accepting the reliability of the information provided by Onesimus, and convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure. Beginning with his son and two slaves, he inoculated over 240 people.
The process of inoculation was politically, medically and religiously opposed in the United States and Europe. In religious circles, it was deemed unnatural and perceived as subverting God's will. Public reaction to the experiment was so adverse that both Mather and Boylston's lives were threatened. Records indicate that the inoculation process itself killed 2 percent of the patients who requested it, while 15 percent of the people who contracted the disease and were not inoculated died from the virus.
Onesimus' recollection of a traditional African medical practice saved numerous lives and sparked the introduction of smallpox inoculation in the United States.
Traditional African medicine is a holistic science that incorporates considerable use of indigenous herbalism with elements of African spirituality. Illness is not seen as a purely physical problem; it can also be attributed to spiritual causes engendered by displeasing the spirits—ancestors or gods.
Traditional healers apply scientific and non-scientific methods. The scientific methods involve the prescription of herbal medicines, which have proven to be just as efficient and also provided the basis for Western medicines. For example, kaolin, the active ingredient in Kaopectate, has always been used to treat diarrhea in Mali; the bark of trees which yield salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin, has been prescribed by Bantu-speaking healers to cure musculoskeletal diseases.
The non-scientific methods involve the appeasement or expulsion of the spirit(s) responsible for the patient's bad health. The social and psychological effects of these methods were highly successful. As in the case of psychotherapy, medication and the power of suggestion were used by traditional healers to treat the whole person.
The African Background in Medical Science: Essays on African History, Science and Civilizations, Charles S. Finch. Karnak House, 1990.
Blacks in Science: Ancient and Modern (Journal of African Civilizations; Vol. 5, No. 1-2), Ivan Van Sertima (ed.). Transaction Publishers, 1990.
Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82, Elizabeth A. Fenn. Hill & Wang, 2001.
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