Great Moments in Freethought: Allen's Inoculation

On a Sunday morning in the spring of 1764, two men presented themselves before the crowd leaving a Congregationalist Church in Salisbury, Connecticut.

The older of the men would have been well known to the congregation, since he was one of the city’s doctors and one of its more notorious freethinkers. His name was Dr. Thomas Young, and he was a competent physician, a self-taught scholar and a well known deist.

His companion was slightly younger, in his mid-twenties compared to Young’s early thirties. He was a prosperous ironmaker in the town with a small but growing family, and so he may have been familiar to the crowd as well. He was Dr. Young’s protégé in all things scholarly, and had recently converted to deism. His name was Ethan Allen.

Allen might have been pale and shaky. This was not on the account of nerves, but because of the numerous medical preparations he had recently undergone. These preparations probably included purges of all sorts, accomplished by mercury pills and ipecac, and a diet of bland foods.

As the crowd watched, Dr. Young made a scratch on Allen’s arm, and then passed a thread through the small wound. The thread had been soaked in the fluid from a pus-filled blister on one of Young’s patients. Allen, still years away from fighting the British, was now fighting a more deadly foe: Variola major, or smallpox.


Pullquote: “Did you ever see two Persons in one Room Ipichacuana’d together? (I hope I have not Spelled that ineffable Word amiss!) I assure you they make merry Diversion. We took turns to be sick and to laugh. When my Companion was sick I laughed at him, and when I was sick he laughed at me.”
John Adams, on his preparation for inoculation

What Dr. Young had just done was technically an inoculation, also known as variolation after the name of the smallpox virus, or in the early days “the Turkish method.” The point was to infect the patient with smallpox in a controlled manner. Some doctors, like Dr. Young, also attempted to find a mild case of smallpox to act as the seed. Unfortunately, most doctors also required days of the “preparations” as Allen had undergone, a system of purging that did more harm than good.

Exactly how inoculation works isn’t clear. In wouldn’t be until 1796 that Edward Jenner would discover the use of cow pox as a means to produce immunity without using the smallpox virus itself. The word “vaccination” was coined to describe Jenner’s method – from the latin vacca for cow – so historians refer to the earlier methods as inoculation to keep them separate. Before this vaccination was devised, doctors were using the variola virus itself, without killing or weakening it.

What is clear is that inoculation did work. Dr. Zabdiel Boylstein of Boston began experimenting with inoculation in 1721. He found that roughly 15% of those who were infected with smallpox naturally died as a result. In contrast, only 2% of those inoculated died, and the symptoms were usually less debilitating as well.


Pullquote: “… There is no Rule in the Word of God to found Inoculation upon. Therefore, Inoculation cannot be according to the Will of God, nor according to Knowledge.”
anti-inoculation pamphlet, John Williams

So Allen could expect to win his bout with smallpox, but he had other battles where the outcome was not as sure. Just for starters, smallpox inoculation was illegal in Salisbury without the consent of the town government. Allen and Young faced a stiff fine for their actions.

That was the least of their worries. Inoculation had been growing in acceptance among the average American citizen, but it was still not well regarded. For many people, the idea of infecting someone with smallpox in order to save them from smallpox was just stupid. Since the infected person could spread the disease, it was criminally stupid. Many inoculated patients were chased out of town by the locals.

There was also a great deal of opposition from the clergy, who were powerful in New England at the time. Many of New England’s ministers were vocal in their belief that smallpox was the will of God and that humans should not attempt to prevent it. This was the reason that Young and Allen had chosen to perform the inoculation in front of a church.

This is not to say that the clergy was united in opposition to inoculation. Cotton Mather, the Congregationalist preacher and member of the Royal Society, was a supporter of Dr. Boylstein first experiments. But for his efforts, Mather got a firebomb thrown through his window – it didn’t ignite – and the vocal opposition of many of his fellow preachers.


Pullquote: “By Jesus Christ, I wish I may be bound down in Hell with old Beelzebub a thousand years in the lowest pit in Hell and that every insipid little devil should come along by …”
Part of Allen’s blasphemy

Regardless of the ongoing arguments, it seems clear that Reverend Jonathan Lee, Allen’s cousin and the minister of the congregation that he and Young now confronted, was one of the preachers who was opposed to inoculation. But Ethan Allen was opposed to Lee and his ilk, and he was determined to make a stand for reason against what he saw as superstition.

It didn’t help that Rev. Lee represented a hyper-calvinist faction that had spread through New England during the first Great Awakening. This group, sometimes called the “New Lights,” had harassed Allen’s family in the past. No love lost here.

When Lee and other local leaders pushed through the crowd to accost Allen and Young, Allen snapped. He demanded satisfaction from Lee and the others, and hurled an impressive amount of profanity and blasphemy at them.

If this weren’t so in character for Allen, it might have been a very clever premeditated move. As a result of his rant, Allen was arrested for blasphemy instead of receiving the inoculation. Allen could not hope to get out of the inoculation charge, but a blasphemy charge was more slippery. After his quarantine was over, Allen was able to finagle his was out of a blasphemy conviction with some courtroom theatrics.

It’s hard to say what the wider effects of this act of rebellion were. It could be argued that it soured the local reputation of both men, causing them to eventually leave Salisbury. That’s definitely the case with Young, who found his practice dried up. Allen was belligerent enough that his ouster was probably inevitable, but the inoculation didn’t help.

Young was forced to leave for greener pastures. He moved to Albany, NY, but he shortly found a new cause: revolution. He spent the rest of his life moving around and opposing taxation and British power. He’s probably most famous for taking part in the Boston Tea Party, during which he refused to wear a disguise.

Allen would go on to found the Green Mountain Boys, the largest paramilitary group in America at the time. They would start by opposing the rapacious landowners of New York, but go on to oppose British troops. Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys are the stuff of American legend for their taking of Fort Ticonderoga.

The inoculation itself is an almost forgotten moment in American history. But it represents, in a perfect little microcosm, the defiance of social, government and religious authority on which the American Revolution was founded.

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