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Boylston, Zabdiel (1679–1766)

Zabdiel Boylston, the first inoculator for smallpox in America, was the son of Thomas Boylston (sometimes written Boyson), a farmer of Muddy River (Brookline), Massachusetts. It is probable that Thomas was the son of Thomas who emigrated from London to America in the Defense and settled in Watertown in 1635. Zabdiel, the fourth child of Thomas and Mary Gardner, was born in Brookline, March 9, 1679.

He received his medical education from Dr. John Cutter, an eminent practitioner of Boston, and began practice there. Such was his industry and tact that he soon acquired a handsome fortune and a large clientage. He was especially interested in botany and zoology and made a large collection of American plants and animals.

He is known chiefly as the first person in America to inoculate for smallpox. According to his own statement ("Account of the Small-pox," 1726, p. 1) he had the diseases himself in 1702 and narrowly escaped with his life. The smallpox appeared as an epidemic in Boston in the year 1721, carrying with it great terror and alarm among the inhabitants.

The scholarly Dr. Cotton Mather received the accounts of inoculation from England and communicating them to Dr. Boylston, urged him to try it. On June 26, 1721, Boylston inoculated his six-year-old son Thomas, and two negro servants. The attempts proved successful. Most violent was the opposition of the physicians, the press and the public, and Boylston's life was in danger at times. He persisted, however, supported by Cotton Mather. The epidemic subsided in May, 1722.

Dr. Boylston in 1721 published: "Some Account of What is said of Inoculation or Transplanting the Small-pox by the Learned Dr. Emanuel Timonius and Jacobus Pylarinus, With some Remarks thereon. To which are added a Few Queries in Answer to the Scruples of many about the Lawfulness of this Method. Published by Dr. Zabdiel Boylstone, Boston, 1721." He inoculated all who came to him, treating 247 with his own hands, and in time the method came to be accepted. In the year 1721 and the beginning of 1722 there were in Boston 5,759 cases of smallpox. Of these 844 died. During the same time 286 persons were inoculated and of these six died ("Boylston's Account of the Small-pox," 1726, pp. 33 and 34). In 1723 he visited England and received honors at the hands of King George the First. While there he published at the request of the Royal Society an account of his practice of inoculation in America, dedicating it to Princess Caroline ("An Historical Account of the Small-pox Inoculation in New England," etc., Zabdiel Boylston, 1726, vol. viii, p. 53, London). After his return to New England he practised medicine for many years, retiring to his farm in Brookline in his old age and dying there in his eighty-seventh year, March 1, 1766.

To show the extent to which the hatred of Boylston and Mather moved the populace it is related that on October 31, 1721, the Rev. Mr. Walter, minister in Roxbury and nephew of Mather, was inoculated by Boylston and while convalescing at Mather's home was visited at night by a mob. They stormed the house, insulted its occupants, and hurled a lighted bomb into the patient's room. Fortunately the fuse of the bomb broke off and no damage was done. The Boston News Letter of November 20, 1721, says of the incident: "When the Granado was taken up there was found a paper so tied with a thread about the fuse that it might outlive the breaking of the shell, wherein were these words: "Cotton Mather, I was once of your meeting, but the cursed lye you told of—You know who, made me leave you, you Dog, and Damn You, I will inoculate you with this, with a pox to you."

The honor of having introduced inoculation into America must be divided between the Rev. Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, although the latter was the active agent, and Isaac Greenwood writes of him in his dedication to "A Friendly Debate; or Dialogue Between Academicus and Sawny (Douglass) and Mundungus (Archbold), Two Eminent Physicians, About Some of their Late Performances, Boston, February 15, 1721–2," as follows: "To my very worthy physician Mr. Zabdiel Boylston. Sir, I know of no person so proper to present the following dialogue to as yourself. . . . To you under the auspicious providence of God, we are indebted for the blessing of inoculation, and you can claim the undivided honor of introducing it among us."

Boylston himself says in his "Account of the Small-pox." "I began the practice indeed from a short consideration thereof, for my children, whose lives were very dear to me, were daily in danger of taking the infection by my visiting the sick in the natural way; and although there arose such a cloud of opposers at the beginning yet finding my account in the success, and easy circumstances of my patients (with the encouragement of the good ministers), I resolved to carry it on for the saving of lives, not regarding any, or all the menaces and opposition that were made against it."

A Biog. Dictn'y of the First Settlers of New England, J. Savage, 1860.
The History of the Small-pox, James Moore, London, 1815.
Some Account of What is said of Inoculation, etc., Z. Boylston, 1721.
An Historical Account of the Small pox Inoc. in New England, Z. Boylston, London, 1726.
Amer. Med. Biog., James Thacher, 1828.
Hist. of Harvard Med. School, T. F. Harrington, N. Y., 1905.
A Narrative of Med. in America, J. G. Mumford, Phila., 1903.