Benjamin Waterhouse

Benjamin Waterhouse, 1805

Cambridge physician and medical professor Benjamin Waterhouse was a native of Newport, Rhode Island, born on March 4, 1754. He apprenticed himself to a surgeon to begin the study of medicine and then, in 1775, went abroad, studying in London, Edinburgh, and Leyden, from which he received a medical degree in 1780. Just after his return to America in 1782, he joined the faculty of the new medical school at Harvard, forming, with John Warren and Aaron Dexter, the initial triumvirate of professors there. Benjamin Waterhouse held the professorship of the Theory and Practice of Physic.

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 widespread inoculation with cowpox matter as a safe preventive measure against the ravages of smallpox. On March 16, he published "Something Curious in the Medical Line", his first notice of Jenner's work, in a Boston newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, and then brought Jenner's publication to the attention of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In the meantime, Waterhouse 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 five-year-old son, Daniel Oliver, and a household servant, Samuel Carter. Vaccinations of three more Waterhouse children and another servant, Kesiah Flag, soon followed. William Aspinwall (1743-1823), a local physician in charge of a smallpox inoculation hospital in Brookline, was then called in to inoculate Samuel Carter with smallpox virus on August 2 and by this process—known as "variolation"—prove the validity of Jenner's work.

The success of the vaccination experiments shaped the next years of Benjamin Waterhouse's career. He published the results of his work as A Prospect of Exterminating the Small Poxjust a few weeks after the first vaccinations and wrote a continuation of the pamphlet in 1802. Waterhouse also became a major advocate for vaccination, inoculating the public and supplying vaccine matter to other physicians and individuals, including President Thomas Jefferson. But his work was not at first completely public-minded. Waterhouse tried to retain a monopoly on the cowpox matter, providing local physicians with vaccine for a share in their profits, but too many individuals were importing the matter from England independently and the demand for vaccination from the public was too great to keep so tight a rein on the procedure. Waterhouse also saw danger in the spread of an ineffective or "spurious" cowpox virus, and a disastrous outbreak of smallpox in Marblehead—with 68 fatalities—occurred in the autumn of 1800. The pamphlets and newspaper articles published by Benjamin Waterhouse during this period helped to alert physicians and the public to the possible dangers of uncontrolled vaccination.

Once he received fresh supplies from England in 1801, Waterhouse began to spread the vaccine matter freely and 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, continued to publish his findings, and campaigned against further spread of the spurious matter. 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 variolation 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."

Benjamin Waterhouse