According to official records by the World Health Organization (WHO), the vaccine for smallpox was introduced by Edward Jenner in 1796.
The records state that Edward Jenner, born on May 17, 1949, developed the first successful smallpox vaccine after observing milkmaids who previously contracted cowpox but were immune to smallpox. From observing the milkmaids, Jenner could notice that inoculated vaccinia virus protected against inoculated variola virus, smallpox causing pathogen.
International health organizations have made a lot of publications on smallpox since the World Health Organization declared smallpox entirely eradicated due to the spread of immunization worldwide in 1980. It remains the only infectious disease to have been entirely wiped out, and thus gives hope for further eradication of infectious diseases.
While the contributions of Edward Jenner remain appreciated, many critics have accused international health organization of failing to credit Onesimus – an African slave in the early 1700s who shared with the world a revolutionary way to prevent smallpox.
In the early 1700s, about a century before Edward Jenner conceived the idea of a smallpox vaccine, the disease was a dreaded epidemic across England and other American colonies after it was reportedly introduced by slaves arriving from Africa in cargo ships during that period. With very little knowledge about the strange disease, there was not much the authorities could do beyond imposing quarantines.
However, millions of lives were saved thanks to the wisdom passed on from Onesimus, an African slave belonging to Cotton Mather, an influential minister in Boston. While this important piece of history did not find its way into the records celebrating the eradication of smallpox, it has continued to stir debate.
Cotton Mather, who is fondly remembered for his role in the promotion of inoculation for disease prevention, was a slave master who bought Onesimus in 1706 and conversed about Onesimus' past which involved surviving smallpox.
A few historical reports reveal that during a smallpox epidemic, Mather inquired from his slave, Onesimus if he had ever had smallpox back in Africa, and Onesimus answered in the affirmative. He described the practice of variolation - which was used to prevent smallpox epidemics.
Variolation is a process that consists of taking infectious material (like pus or fluids) from the blisters of smallpox patients and applying the material through a cut into the skin of a healthy person in a controlled manner and under the supervision of a physician.
The process was carried out so that the smallpox symptoms would be milder but still confer some sort of immunity in the future. Of course, the procedure was not without risk. People still developed severe symptoms and even died from smallpox via variolation, but those who died were in much smaller proportion to those who acquired it naturally from another person.
After hearing Onesimus' story, the slave master, Cotton Mather began to research the practice of variolation and recorded the discovery of the African practice in his diary, "the new Mmethod used by the Africans and Asiaticks, to prevent and abate the Ddangers of the Small-Pox, and infallibly to save the lives of those that have it wisely managed upon them."
Benjamin Franklin, a renowned American polymath and one of the founding fathers of the United States confirmed the practice of variolation in his 1759 publication; a pamphlet published 37 years before Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine.
Despite the obvious presence of the use of variolation as introduced by Onesimus to save thousands of people in America during the smallpox pandemic, it is surprising that his name is consciously omitted from the success stories of smallpox vaccine.
In 1721, half of Boston's residents were infected with smallpox – about 11,000 people. Zabdiel Boylston, a physician who believed Cotton Mather and Onesimus on variolation, inoculated his son and the slaves in his possession. The result was that one in forty people inoculated by Boylston died from smallpox; meanwhile among those who acquired it naturally, one in seven died
At the end of the epidemic, 14 percent of the population of Boston had died. Based on the experiment with variolation, the practice became more accepted in the colonies facing smallpox epidemics.
Historians who favour the contribution of Africans in global successes believe that Onesimus' contribution provided a path for the 1796 vaccine based on cowpox developed by Edward Jenner.
Renowned historian, Steven J. Niven notes that it is unclear whether Onesimus lived to see the success of the smallpox vaccine. However, it records that Onesimus partially purchased his freedom from Cotton Mather by paying for the purchase of another slave. Like millions of slaves, not much is known about Onesimus.
In recent years, there has been a growing movement to give Onesimus a place in history, but the W.H.O. is reluctant to yield to these demands.