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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  • Andrew Hall

    Thanks for posting this. I think most people learn about inoculation starting with Jenner and not “the Turkish method”.

  • Noelle

    Interesting. Vaccines are the best invention medicine has come up with ever. I couldn’t imagine life without them.

    • UrsaMinor

      And yet, a significant proportion of the population is convinced that vaccines are an evil conspiracy.

    • vorjack

      No question. Eradicating smallpox is one of the most impressive things that humanity has accomplished.

      • UrsaMinor

        We could eradicate smallpox if we wanted to, but we have chosen to merely contain it to laboratory freezers. We have not destroyed the live cultures. There have been accidents that have infected lab workers. To me, this is worrisome.

  • Igor

    Nothing’s changed. The idiot GOP candidiates are arguing over the morality of giving girls the HPV innoculation. More than 250 years later, and religion is still the major impediment to reason.

    • Stony

      I’m not sure this is the same. I tend to believe there were some shenanigans with the Merck deal in Texas. They may be arguing morality, where I would be arguing profiteering. (That said, if I had a daughter, she would be vaccinated against HPV.) I was mildly concerned about the sheer volume of inoculations my son endured as a child, but I happened to have my childhood record, and compared what I went through 40 years ago with what we provide today….the only major change was the addition of the chicken pox vaccine.

    • vasaroti

      I heard Michelle Bachman’s remarks, and couldn’t quite figure out if she was more concerned about the ‘big government’ aspect of making the vaccine mandatory, or some metaphysical violation of virgin girls. 30 years from now, it will be interesting to look at the regional demographics of ovarian cancer. Most people seem to miss the point that if they wait until the teen is sexually active to give the vaccine, there’s a chance that she’s already been exposed to the virus.
      I think many GOP politicians would like to advocate vaccination, – so many are in the generation that was saved from polio- but are wary of the anti-science crowd.

  • LRA

    Ha! Ethan Allen is my great-great-great (how many ever greats)- grand uncle.


    • vorjack

      Cool! Why aren’t you in Vermont? It’s colder than Texas, but it’s not currently on fire.

      • Yoav

        Or governed by someone who, by comparison, makes Michelle Bachmen sound rational and the Ayatollah Khomeini a supporter of mild involvement of religion in government.

      • LRA

        LOL! Well, my paternal grandfather grew up in Pittsburgh and migrated to Texas where he met and married my grandmother. His job brought him down here.

        Anyhoo– on my dad’s side of the family I’m a 13th generation American… my original ancestor came to America in 1687.


        • Michael

          Your “original ancestor?” You’re only a 13th generation human?


          • LRA

            Yes. :D

          • FO

            You are not a real human until you become American! Duh!

            • Custador

              You’re not a human being until you’re in my ‘phone book.

            • FO

              In fact I’m a helicopter.
              I’m really happy of this. ^_^

  • zach

    love this post.

  • Josh Mather

    Ironically, my father, who claims we are descended from Cotton insists that vaccines are against god’s plan.

    • Sunny Day

      You must be so Proud.

    • Michael

      God’s plan must suck if it didn’t take into account all these scientific advances.

      I hope he has a plan B (that doesn’t involve killing everybody again).

  • Covalence2

    This is a useful summary but it has a couple of things wrong.

    1) First of all, Allen’s action was not a “little-known” event, its influence is mentioned in many studies on smallpox variolation/inoculation (I’m currently working from Shryock, Winslow, Silverman, the Colonial Society’s studies in the 1960s, P. Watson, etc.; not all mention it, but many do).

    So while it’s useful, the article is hardly exceptional, and given that Cotton Mather, an orthodox minister in Boston, was the instigator of the first public health trial of inoculation, in 1721, it can’t be taken as proof of anything about “freethinking” vs. creedal adherence in medical advances.

    2) The statement “Exactly how inoculation works isn’t clear” is exactly wrong. It’s a very well-known and closely-studied mechanism, and even by the 17th c. a rudimentary understanding of microbiology (then known as “animalicular studies” after Leeuwenhoek’s designation for the bacterium he saw under the first microscope–see: had already begun.

    The human body sends antibodies to lyse (kill) invasive bodies like viruses. When the attack has been repulsed, the antibodies remain in the system, continuing to protect it. By transferring a small amount of infected matter, this mechanism is set off, the inoculated person receives (usually) a mild form of the disease, and the antibodies protect them from a greater, more morbid, infection later.

    My background is in colonial gravestone studies and medical transcription; I currently work at a pharmaceutical; I’m researching and writing on colonial gravestones with references to inoculation and other diseases presently. (Another interesting study is Ernest Caufield’s on Connecticut stones and epidemology.)