Zabadiel Boylston, colonial America’s most famous doctor, never earned a medical degree. Born at Muddy River (modern-day Brookline), Massachusetts, he studied first with his father and then with Doctor John Cutler in Boston.
Boylston began his medical career around 1700. From the start he was noted for his inventiveness, his willingness to try new methods—and for his eagerness to acquire a great deal of money. However, like all good physicians, he was also concerned with the health and well-being of the members of his community.
Public health, or lack of it, was a serious concern in the colonies. One of the most devastating diseases that periodically swept through the colonies was the dreaded smallpox. Boston endured a severe smallpox epidemic in 1702. Boylston was one of those who contracted the disease, but he survived.
Nineteen years later, a new generation of Bostonians with no immunity to the disease faced a return of the smallpox.The disease came to Boston on April 15, 1721, carried by crew members on a ship that arrived from the Caribbean. The disease spread rapidly in the small city; soon the well being of the entire community was in peril.
Boylston learned of a new and controversial method of fighting off the disease—a process called inoculation—from the community’s renowned spiritual leader, Cotton Mather. Boylston took up the challenge. On June 26, he inoculated his son Thomas and seven other citizens. Boylston did not inoculate himself since he had already had smallpox in 1702.
Mather and Boylston came under intense criticism from Bostonians who mistrusted this new way of fighting the pox. Both men’s houses came under attack, and Mather had to issue several pamphlets in their defense.Boylston continued to inoculate people despite the town uproar.
Over the next several months, he produced his medical records: he inoculated a total of 241 people; only six of them died from the pox, and four of those already had smallpox when they were inoculated. By contrast, of the 5,889 uninoculated people in Boston who contracted the disease, 844 died.News of the success of inoculation spread quickly, and Boylston was invited to England, where he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1726.
Before he returned to Massachusetts that same year, Boylston published An Historical Account ofthe Small-Pox Inoculated in New England. Even today, the work is considered a model of objective medical reporting.Boylston eventually retired and lived quietly on a farm in his remaining years.