black history month, history , vaccines
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A 1776 book about the eradication of smallpox in New England.

The early colonists of Boston were terrified—and nearly wiped out—by a rapidly spreading virus. As our modern society panics over incoming COVID-19 variants, I’m sure you can imagine the climate.

But instead of being taken by the deadly disease, Boston took part in a bold new experiment. As a result, smallpox was stopped in its tracks.

And it was thanks to the brilliant idea of an enslaved man, who really should be a household name for his contribution, one that remains a foundational principle in modern medicine.


Though an ancient affliction (as in, even the Egyptians knew about it), smallpox didn’t appear in the Western Hemisphere until 1507. But when it did, it killed an estimated 2 million among the native population alone.

Smallpox incited fever, fatigue, a nightmare-ish rash and worst of all, it was extremely contagious. The once-prosperous town of Boston had residents fleeing to avoid possible exposure.

smallpox, black history month, vaccine history

Smallpox under the microscope.

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But fate was changed in 1721, when a man named Onesimus shared how he once had smallpox. And that he overcame it.

Onesimus was a slave to Puritan minister Cotton Mather (major player in the Salem witch trials, swell guy), and was given his name from another enslaved man in the Bible whose name meant “useful.” Mather also referred to Onesimus as “wicked,” but something tells me Mather liked to dish out that descriptor a lot. And moreover, Onesimus proved to be indeed quite useful.

Onesimus told Mather the story of how he, too, contracted smallpox in Africa but “had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it...and whoever had the courage to use it was forever free of the fear of contagion.”

That operation would later be widely known as variolation, where a healthy person could make a small cut in their skin, then insert infectious material (in this case, pus from smallpox blisters) into the cut. You’re welcome for the visual.

Not being entirely trusting—shocker—Mather decided to research further. Lo and behold, this method had not only been used in Africa, but China and Turkey as well.

Wisdom did not beat racism so easily. Even Mather was accused of “Negroish thinking” while trying to promote the idea. Not to mention that, ironically, the very religion Mather idolized proved to be an obstacle, as other preachers claimed the practice to be “against God’s will.”

That tune changed after more than 14% of Boston's population was decimated, and one physician showed his support. Zabdiel Boylston inoculated his son, and the slaves in his possession, and the results were impossible to ignore: of the 24 people inoculated, only six died.

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1802: a comparison of smallpox (left) and 16 days after being administered with cowpox (right)

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Without Onesimus introducing this form of disease prevention, we very likely might still be facing smallpox today … if we survived, that is. The success of variolation planted the seed for new hope, and not much later, a vaccine based on cowpox would be developed.

Not much is known about what happened to Onesimus, other than partially purchasing his freedom from Mather. But we owe him a debt of recognition. This is a valuable story not only for the power of science, but for the amazing insight to be gained by respecting other cultures.

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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Matthew McConaughey in 2019.

Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey made a heartfelt plea for Americans to “do better” on Tuesday after a gunman murdered 19 children and 2 adults at Robb Elementary School in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas.

Uvalde is a small town of about 16,000 residents approximately 85 miles west of San Antonio. The actor grew up in Uvalde until he was 11 years old when his family moved to Longview, 430 miles away.

The suspected murderer, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos, was killed by law enforcement at the scene of the crime. Before the rampage, Ramos allegedly shot his grandmother after a disagreement.

“As you all are aware there was another mass shooting today, this time in my home town of Uvalde, Texas,” McConaughey wrote in a statement shared on Twitter. “Once again, we have tragically proven that we are failing to be responsible for the rights our freedoms grant us.”

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Joy

50-years ago they trade a grilled cheese for a painting. Now it's worth a small fortune.

Irene and Tony Demas regularly traded food at their restaurant in exchange for crafts. It paid off big time.

Photo by Gio Bartlett on Unsplash

Painting traded for grilled cheese worth thousands.

The grilled cheese at Irene and Tony Demas’ restaurant was truly something special. The combination of freshly baked artisan bread and 5-year-old cheddar was enough to make anyone’s mouth water, but no one was nearly as devoted to the item as the restaurant’s regular, John Kinnear.

Kinnear loved the London, Ontario restaurant's grilled cheese so much that he ordered it every single day, though he wouldn’t always pay for it in cash. The Demases were well known for bartering their food in exchange for odds and ends from local craftspeople and merchants.

“Everyone supported everyone back then,” Irene told the Guardian, saying that the couple would often trade free soup and a sandwich for fresh flowers. Two different kinds of nourishment, you might say.

And so, in the 1970s the Demases made a deal with Kinnear that he could pay them for his grilled cheese sandwiches with artwork. Being a painter himself and part of an art community, Kinnear would never run out of that currency.

Little did Kinnear—or anyone—know, eventually he would give the Demases a painting worth an entire lifetime's supply of grilled cheeses. And then some.

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