Trouble with Inoculation in 1780 and 1792
…But Eventually, Free Vaccination for All
BY KATRINA HOLMAN
This article is a follow-on to last month’s column, “The Beginning of ‘Vaccine’ and the Amherst Physician Who Helped.”
As you, faithful reader, learned about pest houses and inoculation hospitals for small-pox in 19th century New England, did you wonder: How did small-pox affect our town of Amherst, New Hampshire? Inoculation and/or vaccination were mentioned in Amherst Town Records on three occasions: 1780, 1792/3, and 1840.
To set the stage: In January 1764, not long after the incorporation of Amherst but still 12 years before the Declaration of Independence, the Town of Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had an outbreak of small-pox in more than a dozen families/houses – which terrified the folks in the Province of New Hampshire, especially those in populous Portsmouth. So much so that His Excellency the Governor, Council, and Representatives of the Province of New Hampshire, convened in General Assembly, passed “an Act providing in Case of Sickness, such as the Plague, SMALL-POX, pestilential or malignant Fevers, or other contagious sickness, the infection whereof may be probably communicated to others.” This act authorized Selectmen of N.H. towns “to make effectual provision in the best manner they can for the preservation of the inhabitants, by removing such sick or infected persons to a separate house, and by providing of nurses, tendance and other assistance, and necessaries for them, at the charge of the parties themselves, their parents or masters (if able) or otherwise at the charge of the town, or place whereto they belong.” The act empowered the sheriff of the province or a constable of the town, using a warrant made out by any justice of the peace, to enforce the new law. (There was also regulation for dealing with sick persons arriving by sea to a port or harbor.) Right away the Selectmen of Portsmouth arranged that all persons coming from Boston were to be given a health examination at a designated tavern in Portsmouth, and “any who refuse to submit to [this] rule and order” were to be “immediately taken up and confined”! Furthermore, any such travelers and visitors, who had not yet had small-pox in particular were to quarantine themselves; and inhabitants were required to report all visitors from Boston to the Selectmen. (New Hampshire Gazette of Portsmouth, 27 Jan. 1764.)
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, the Great and General Court (Governor, Council and House of Representatives) passed “an act to prevent the spreading of the Small-Pox and other infectious Sickness, and to prevent the concealing of the same” with included a stiff penalty for disobedience. It stated “that no person shall presume to inoculate or be inoculated in Boston without the leave of the major part of the Selectmen in writing.” But this was emergency legislation, to be in effect for
two months only, or “until that 30 Families are known to be visited with that distemper [small-pox] at one time, unless before that time the Selectmen shall give public notice that they have no hope to stop the progress of said distemper...” (Boston Evening Post, 23 January 1764.) In response, a long letter to newspaper publishers disagreed with the law, claiming general discontent because it denied people their liberty of self-preservation: “The Small-Pox taken in the natural way is a very dangerous disease, and has in times past proved very fatal; but since the discovery of Inoculation the severity and danger of it has undeniably been very much lessened.” The writer pointed out: “The damage which the town in general will sustain in their trade by the town’s being shut up this summer will vastly exceed the highest additional charge of the poor having the Small-Pox in the winter.” (Boston Evening Post, 30 Jan. 1764.) In the following issue, there was a rebuttal, praising the great care and pains the Selectmen were taking.
The Massachusetts Governor and Council, concerned that “many of the inhabitants [of Boston] were removed through fear of the Small-Pox and that such as remained, and were liable to it, were refrained from inoculating,” held a session on 8 February in which they met with Boston’s Selectmen, and then arranged for multiple houses to be converted into an inoculation hospital at Point Shirley on the outskirts of Boston, now part of Winthrop. (Boston Gazette, 13 Feb. 1764.) Within two weeks later the Governor had additionally “consented that the Barracks of Castle William shall be improved for the purpose of inoculation from this time unto the middle of May next. There are in the Barracks 48 rooms, each of which will contain ten patients conveniently, … and are now opened to ALL PHYSICIANS having patients to inoculate [in classes of ten each].” (Boston Gazette, 27 Feb. 1764.) A committee was appointed to devise regulations for the hospitals.
In mid-March, even though there were still 10 families in different parts of Boston infected, the Selectmen of Boston removed the guards from their houses, no longer enforcing social isolation (as we would now call it), and allowed inoculation after that. At the same time in N.H., the Selectmen of Portsmouth reported that “whereas the Small-Pox is become general in Boston and we apprehend there is great Danger of this Distemper being communicated to other towns, and as this town is more exposed than any other,” they had built a fence across the main road at the entrance to Portsmouth, where they had “erected a small building in order to smoke all persons from Boston, with all their bundles, letters, etc.” with someone on duty from 5:00 am till 10:00 pm. Those who complied would receive a certificate; those who did not would be arrested and jailed immediately. (N.H. Gazette, 16 March 1764.)
In mid-April, “Numbers of Persons are daily coming into [Boston], as also to the Hospitals at Point Shirley and Castle William to receive the Small Pox by inoculation: besides those who some from the neighboring towns, there are several from the Province of New Hampshire, the Colonies of Connecticut, and Rhode Island. It is judged that between 3 and 4000 Persons have gone safely through that Distemper, in the time since Liberty was granted for Inoculation, which is five Weeks; and it is observable there has been little or no Infection [spread] from those who have had the disease [by inoculation]. (Boston Post-Boy, 16 April 1764; picked up by N.H. Gazette, 19 April 1764.)
Anti-Inoculation in 1780
In Amherst, the warrant for the March 1780 town meeting included: “4th To see if the Town will take some method to prevent the spreading of the Small Pox in this Town and act thereon as they shall see fit.” The (male) citizens and their five elected (male) leaders present responded: “Voted – That their Selectmen Desire the Doctors to Desist from [I]noculating with the Small Pox and they would incur the Displeasure of the Town if they Didn’t Desist.” (Amherst Town Records Vol. 1, original p. 220.)
The dissonance between the neutral wording of the original warrant and the ardent response of the voters – who apparently viewed inoculation as a method of spreading the dread disease rather than a method of prevention – speaks volumes about the distrust of inoculation in the Town of Amherst near the end of the Colonial period. Impossible to know from the brief account if the specific local physicians and their specific treatment methods were at fault; or perhaps the town simply wasn’t large enough to sustain the expense of setting up a dedicated hospital for containment during recovery.