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black history month, history , vaccines
Image ownership: public domain

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.

history of medicine, black heroes

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.

via FIRST

FIRST students compete in a robotics challenge.

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Societies all over the world face an ever-growing list of complex issues that require informed solutions. Whether it’s addressing infectious diseases, the effects of climate change, supply chain issues or resource scarcity, the world has an immediate need for problem-solvers with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.

Here in the United States, we’re experiencing a shortage of much-needed STEM workers, and forward-thinking organizations are stepping up to tap into America’s youth to fill the void. As the leading youth-serving nonprofit advancing STEM education, FIRST is an important player in this arena, and its mission is to inspire young people aged 4 to 18 to become technology leaders and innovators capable of addressing the world’s pressing needs.

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The marital bed is a symbol of the intimacy shared between people who’ve decided to be together 'til death they do part. When couples sleep together it’s an expression of their closeness and how they care for one another when they are most vulnerable.

However, for some couples, the marital bed can be a warzone. Throughout the night couples can endure snoring, sleep apnea, the ongoing battle for sheets or circadian rhythms that never seem to sync. If one person likes to fall asleep with the TV on while the other reads a book, it can be impossible to come to an agreement on a good-night routine.

Last week on TODAY, host Carson Daly reminded viewers that he and his wife Siri, a TODAY Food contributor, had a sleep divorce while she was pregnant with their fourth child.

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Marlon Brando on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1973.

Marlon Brando made one of the biggest Hollywood comebacks in 1972 after playing the iconic role of Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” The venerable actor's career had been on a decline for years after a series of flops and increasingly unruly behavior on set.

Brando was a shoo-in for Best Actor at the 1973 Academy Awards, so the actor decided to use the opportunity to make an important point about Native American representation in Hollywood.

Instead of attending the ceremony, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a Yaqui and Apache actress and activist dressed in traditional clothing, to talk about the injustices faced by Native Americans.

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Joy

1991 blooper clip of Robin Williams and Elmo is a wholesome nugget of comedic genius

Robin Williams is still bringing smiles to faces after all these years.

Robin Williams and Elmo (Kevin Clash) bloopers.

The late Robin Williams could make picking out socks funny, so pairing him with the fuzzy red monster Elmo was bound to be pure wholesome gold. Honestly, how the puppeteer, Kevin Clash, didn’t completely break character and bust out laughing is a miracle. In this short outtake clip, you get to see Williams crack a few jokes in his signature style while Elmo tries desperately to keep it together.

Williams has been a household name since what seems like the beginning of time, and before his death in 2014, he would make frequent appearances on "Sesame Street." The late actor played so many roles that if you were ask 10 different people what their favorite was, you’d likely get 10 different answers. But for the kids who spent their childhoods watching PBS, they got to see him being silly with his favorite monsters and a giant yellow canary. At least I think Big Bird is a canary.

When he stopped by "Sesame Street" for the special “Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake” in 1991, he was there to show Elmo all of the wonderful things you could do with a stick. Williams turns the stick into a hockey stick and a baton before losing his composure and walking off camera. The entire time, Elmo looks enthralled … if puppets can look enthralled. He’s definitely paying attention before slumping over at the realization that Williams goofed a line. But the actor comes back to continue the scene before Elmo slinks down inside his box after getting Williams’ name wrong, which causes his human co-star to take his stick and leave.

The little blooper reel is so cute and pure that it makes you feel good for a few minutes. For an additional boost of serotonin, check out this other (perfectly executed) clip about conflict that Williams did with the two-headed monster. He certainly had a way of engaging his audience, so it makes sense that even after all of these years, he's still greatly missed.