Smallpox Vaccination and the Waterhouse Experiments
The long road towards eradication of smallpox in the United States begins two hundred years ago, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Benjamin Waterhouse studied the researches of English physician Edward Jenner and followed with his own experiments. Dr. Waterhouse then fostered an aggressive campaign to inoculate Americans against smallpox—the disease he called the "devouring monster." The Countway Library holds an extraordinary of rare books, pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, letters, and artifacts—many gifts from members of the Waterhouse family—documenting those first effort to slay that devouring monster.
Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846) held the professorship of the Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. In 1799, a London physician and friend, John Coakley Lettsom, sent to Waterhouse a copy of Edward Jenner's An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ. Waterhouse was quick to see the value and possibilities of Jenner’s work and believed widespread inoculation with cowpox matter could be a safe preventive measure against the ravages of smallpox. He entered into correspondence with Jenner and received from him some specimens of thread impregnated with the vaccine matter. So confident was Waterhouse of the efficacy and safety of the vaccination procedure that, on July 8, 1800, he used the matter from Jenner to vaccinate his young son, Daniel Oliver, and a household servant, Samuel Carter. Vaccinations of three more Waterhouse children and another servant, Kesiah Flag, soon followed "to convince the faithless, and silence the mischievous."
Waterhouse published the results of his work as A Prospect of Exterminating the Small Pox just a few weeks after the first vaccination experiments. He became a major advocate for vaccination, inoculating the public and supplying vaccine matter to other physicians and individuals, including President Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Waterhouse proposed that the Board of Health in Boston establish a vaccine institution and inoculate the poor without charge. He distributed the matter along with printed instructions for proper vaccination and continued to publish his findings. In 1802, Waterhouse challenged the Board of Health to a public trial of vaccination. Six physicians along with Waterhouse vaccinated nineteen boys on August 16; later that fall, the volunteers were exposed to the smallpox virus. This trial was a complete success and the Board published a report strongly urging the public to take advantage of the procedure, attesting that "The Cow-pox is a complete preventive against all the effects of the Small-pox upon the human system."