Benjamin Franklin’s fight against a deadly virus: Colonial America was divided over smallpox inoculation, but he championed science to skeptics

Benjamin Franklin's fight against a deadly virus: Colonial America was divided  over smallpox inoculation, but he championed science to skeptics

Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak. Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today’s world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.

As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.

Smallpox strikes Boston

Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3,000 years, it ran rampant in Boston, eventually striking more than half the city’s population. The virus killed about 1 in 13 residents – but the death toll was probably more, since the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.

What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as “variolation” or “inoculation,” and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “matter” from a victim’s scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of “immunity” against smallpox.

Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.

The inoculation treatment, which originated in Asia and Africa, came to be known in Boston thanks to a man named Onesimus. By 1721, Onesimus was enslaved, owned by the most influential man in all of Boston, the Rev. Cotton Mather.

etching of an 18th century man in white wig
Cotton Mather heard about variolation from an enslaved West African man in his household named Onesimus. Bettman via Getty Images

Known primarily as a Congregational minister, Mather was also a scientist with a special interest in biology. He paid attention when Onesimus told him “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used” in West Africa, where he was from.

Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of inoculation’s effectiveness worthy of 21st-century praise. They found that of the approximately 300 people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared with almost 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.

The findings seemed clear: Inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science won out in this clergyman’s mind. But others were not convinced.

Stirring up controversy

A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable hunger for controversy. Franklin, who was no fan of Mather, set about attacking inoculation in his newspaper, The New-England Courant.

frontpage of a 1721 newspaper
From its first edition, The New-England Courant covered inoculation. Wikimedia Commons

One article from August 1721 tried to guilt readers into resisting inoculation. If someone gets inoculated and then spreads the disease to someone else, who in turn dies of it, the article asked, “at whose hands shall their Blood be required?” The same article went on to say that “Epidemeal Distempers” such as smallpox come “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God.”

In contrast to Mather and Boylston’s research, the Courant’s articles were designed not to discover, but to sow doubt and distrust. The argument that inoculation might help to spread the disease posits something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but it seems beside the point. If inoculation worked, wouldn’t it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would dramatically decrease the likelihood that one person would infect another?

Franklin, the Courant’s editor, had a kid brother apprenticed to him at the time – a teenager by the name of Benjamin.

Historians don’t know which side the younger Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took a side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world’s current encounter with a deadly virus and a divided response to a vaccine.

Independent thought

You might expect that James’ little brother would have been inclined to oppose inoculation as well. After all, thinking like family members and others you identify with is a common human tendency.

That he was capable of overcoming this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin’s capacity for independent thought, an asset that would serve him well throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking with social expectations confers certain advantages in certain settings, being able to shake off these norms when they are dangerous is also valuable. We believe the most successful people are the ones who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between adherence and independence.

Truth, not victory

etching of Franklin standing at a table in a lab
Franklin matured into a well-known scientist and statesman, with many successes aided by his open mind. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

What happened next shows that Franklin, unlike his brother – and plenty of pundits and politicians in the 21st century – was more interested in discovering the truth than in proving he was right.

Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him to understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the U.S. in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffersTribes, whether long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energies to demonizing the other side and rallying their own. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.

Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a sound approach to preventing smallpox. Years later he intended to have his son Francis inoculated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died because of inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents from exposing their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight, explaining that the child had “receiv’d the Distemper in the common Way of Infection.”

Writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to advocate for inoculation. He explained that he “regretted bitterly and still regret” not inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

A scientific perspective

A final lesson from 1721 has to do with the importance of a truly scientific perspective, one that embraces science, facts and objectivity.

19th-century photo of a smallpox patient
Smallpox was characterized by fever and aches and pustules all over the body. Before eradication, the virus killed about 30% of those it infected, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this lifesaving method was not without deadly risks. To address this paradox, several physicians meticulously collected data and compared the number of those who died because of natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston essentially carried out what today’s researchers would call a clinical study on the efficacy of inoculation. Knowing he needed to demonstrate the usefulness of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a short book how he inoculated nearly 300 individuals and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over days and weeks.

The recent emergency-use authorization of mRNA-based and viral-vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a vast array of hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like 18th-century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but ones that are based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.

We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists and everyone else making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.

When it comes to a deadly virus and a divided response to a preventive treatment, Franklin was clear what he would do. It doesn’t take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence of medical science today.

Warren Buffett: This is your 1 greatest measure of success in life

Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Warren Buffett is no doubt one of the few business icons who can deliver the gift of wisdom and truth when we need it most. And those truths, when you really stop and consider them, are always spot-on.

In her biography of Buffett, “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life,” author Alice Schroeder writes about a time when Buffett gave a presentation at The University of Georgia. The students asked him about his definition of success.

When you’re nearing your end of life, your only measure of success should be the number of “people you want to have love you actually do love you,” he answered.

“I know people who have a lot of money, and they get testimonial dinners and they get hospital wings named after them. But the truth is that nobody in the world loves them,” said Buffett. “If you get to my age in life and nobody thinks well of you, I don’t care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster.”

That’s right, a self-made billionaire says that the amount you are loved — not your wealth or accomplishments — is the ultimate measure of success in life.

To give and receive

Love is one of the most powerful emotions a human being can feel, and yet, we still live in an individualistic society of keeping up with the Joneses: We forge ahead with our business ventures and strategically plan our career paths in hopes of finding fame and fortune. We feel we’ve finally arrived at the top when we’re able to vacation twice a year to exotic islands and drop a European luxury car (or two) in the garage. We dream about having all of these things, love be damned.

“The problem with love is that it’s not for sale,” Buffett told the students. “The only way to get love is to be lovable. It’s very irritating if you have a lot of money. You’d like to think you could write a check: I’ll buy a million dollars’ worth of love. But it doesn’t work that way. The more you give love away, the more you get.”

So how can we follow Buffett’s principle of success in a way where we can truly leave behind a legacy? The path of putting love into motion is a daring and courageous one, but here are a few ways to do it:

1. Be selfless and don’t expect anything in return

The laws of love are reciprocal. When we choose to love someone unconditionally by encouraging and believing in them, love comes back in full force through respect, admiration, trust and loyalty.If you get to my age in life and nobody thinks well of you, I don’t care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster.Warren BuffettCHAIRMAN AND CEO, BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY

What’s more, when we receive those things, we become more self-compassionate. A 2011 study conducted by the University of California found that self-compassion can increase motivation, willpower and the ability to recover from failure. Another study, published in 2007 in the Journal of Research in Personality, concluded that people who have self-compassion are more likely to be happy, optimistic and show personal initiative.

2. Be empathetic

Empathy is one of most common traits of likable (or, as Buffett prefers to say, “lovable”) people. True empathy occurs when you’re able to step into someone else’s shoes and see their perspective.

Empathy also plays a major role in a person’s potential to influence others. In a DDI study of more than 15,000 leaders across 20 industries, researchers found that the ability to listen and respond with empathy was the most critical driver of a team’s overall performance.

3. Make work enjoyable and fun

When you enjoy work, you enjoy life. In Carol J. Loomis’ biography of Buffett, “Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything,” she mentions a quote from Buffett: “I love every day. I mean, I tap dance in here and work with nothing but people I like. There is no job in the world that is more fun than running Berkshire, and I count myself lucky to be where I am.”

The evidence here is clear: In positive and uplifting cultures where people share the same values, beliefs and norms, you’ll find a high-performing group of people who attract folks of the same kind.

4. Treat others the way they want to be treated

As children, we’re often taught the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you want to be treated.” But the Platinum Rule takes it to a whole new level: “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”

When we follow the Platinum Rule, we can be more certain that we’re respecting what they want, instead of projecting our own values and preferences. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the Golden Rule altogether, but we should realize its limitations given that every person and every situation is so different.

5. Follow your passion

If you want to have your dream career, you must follow your passion. It’s that simple. Many of us take our cushy paychecks and job security for granted, even though we might hate our jobs and would rather be doing something else — something we actually love.

As humans, doing what we love is a major contributor to true happiness in life. So if you don’t know what your passion is, it’s time to figure that out.

The Wisdom of Mr. Rogers

Image may contain: 2 people, text that says 'Truth Inside Of You In 1969, when black citizens were still not allowed to swim in community pools alongside white people, Mr. Rogers invited a black police officer on the show and asked him to join in and cool his feet in a small plastic pool, breaking a well-known color barrier.'

In 1969, when Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated a year earlier, black citizens weren’t allowed to swim in “white-only” swimming pools. Fred Rogers wanted to send a deliberate message on the May 9, 1969, episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”: He invited Officer Clemmons, a black police officer played by François Clemmons, on his show and asked him if he wanted to cool off by dipping his feet into a children’s wading pool.

Officer Clemmons initially declines the invitation, noting he didn’t have a towel—but Rogers tells Clemmons he could share his. Mr. Rogers joined Clemmons in the pool, breaking the color barrier live on television. When Officer Clemmons had to go, he used Rogers’ towel to dry his feet, as promised. Mr. Rogers left the pool directly after Clemmons and proceeded to use the same towel. Their casual intimacy exposed the bigotry of denying black citizens access to pools, or any other place in society. We need more Mister Rogers in our world now.