We are currently experiencing a global pandemic, something few living people have witnessed before. At this time, it is fascinating to consider the history of disease and the impact it had on people of the past. New Englanders of the seventeenth-century suffered numerous disease outbreaks, which wreaked havoc on communities throughout the region. When the English and European colonists arrived in the early-mid 1600’s, they brought with them smallpox, measles and the flu. With no immunity to these diseases, approximately 90% of the Native population was killed, an absolutely devastating figure.
Smallpox swept through colonial New England communities regularly. Symptoms of the very contagious disease, which killed 3 out of 10 infected people, included fever and rash. Survivors were left with scars, often on their face, and some became blind. It is not known where smallpox originated, but according to the CDC, “a smallpox-like rash found on three mummies” indicate the disease may have begun in the Egyptian Empire as early as the third century BCE. Outbreaks of disease frequently heightened witchcraft suspicions, leading neighbors to view one another with distrust and anger, and launching grudges that could last for decades. One very clear example of the relationship between disease and witchcraft suspicions is the accusation of Martha Carrier during the Salem witch trials. Sometime between 1684 and 1689, Goodwife Carrier and her husband Thomas moved from Billerica to Andover. Shortly after they arrived, a smallpox outbreak began in the Carrier family and thirteen townspeople died, among them seven members of Carrier’s family: her father, two brothers, two nephews, one sister-in-law, and one brother-in-law. Many in the community blamed the Carrier family for the outbreak, a grievance that was not soon forgotten. In 1692, when witchcraft accusations began to spread from Salem Village across Essex County, Martha Carrier was the first person to be accused in Andover. This innocent woman, who accusers claimed the Devil had promised would be “the Queen in Hell,” was hanged on August 19, 1692.
Another significant disease in seventeenth-century New England was yellow fever, first brought to the area on ships arriving from the Caribbean. The disease is spread between humans by the bite of an infected mosquito, a fact unknown at the time. Symptoms include fever and the yellowing of the skin, as the virus causes damage to the liver and kidneys, and in the most extreme cases, death. In June of 1693, a fleet of British warships arrived in Boston. On June 11, Reverend Cotton Mather was invited to give a sermon to the soldiers onboard one of the ships. Luckily for Mather, he became seasick on the barge taking him to the fleet, and so he gave the sermon in his own meeting house that afternoon. According to historian Marilynne Roach, when it was discovered that the fleet was rife with yellow fever, “His embarrassing episode of seasickness seemed a gift from Cotton’s guardian angel to keep him off a plague ship.” The next day, at the monthly ministers meeting at Harvard, they discussed the risk to health and life for ministers visiting the sick during epidemics, deciding later that spiritual leaders must attend to the ill parishioners who needed them.
The British ships were quarantined in Boston Harbor. The first local death from “fleet-fever” was recorded on June 25. The fever continued its devastating march through Boston during the hot months of July, August, September, and into October, killing not only people on board ship but also Boston residents, among them Dr. Thomas Pemberton, a surgeon. Marilynne Roach notes, “Townsfolk were dying as well, and many of those who could afford it planned to move away from Boston until the sickness abated.” Finally, the colder months killed off the mosquitos who were spreading the disease from person to person. While there is no medicine to cure or treat yellow fever, which is endemic in areas of Africa and Latin America, there is a vaccine and today yellow fever is a rare cause of sickness in US travelers.
Measles was another disease which visited seventeenth-century New England. The worst measles epidemic colonial America had ever seen arrived in 1713, and was described contemporaneously by Reverend Cotton Mather in his diary. Among its victims, during six weeks of October-November, were Mather’s second wife, 38-year-old Elizabeth, their two-year-old daughter, their newborn twins, and their maidservant. Six other Mather children came down with the measles, but survived. A fascinating article available on the CDC website recounts Mather’s tragic experience during this epidemic, and his ongoing work in support of scientific and medical solutions for contagious diseases. Author David M. Morens notes, “The 1713 Boston measles epidemic occurred 21 years after the Salem witch trials, in which historians still debate Mather’s role as instigator or mitigator; 7 years after Mather discovered that inoculation might be able to prevent smallpox; and 8 years before Mather passionately advocated inoculations in response to a deadly smallpox epidemic. Because Mather died 30 years before preventative measles inoculation is known to have been attempted and 225 years before the first effective measles vaccine was developed, we have no way of knowing what he would have thought about measles immunogens, their use in public health programs, or policies to ensure universal vaccination of children.” Morens adds, “In this writer’s opinion, however, there is little doubt that Mather—were he alive today—would strongly support all reasonable measles control efforts, including universal and publicly enforced vaccination.” (Morens DM. The Past Is Never Dead—Measles Epidemic, Boston, Massachusetts, 1713. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2015) The full David Morens article can be read here: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/21/7/15-0397_article
Variolation, the process of introducing the smallpox virus into people who did not have it, by inhalation or scratching smallpox material under the skin, was the first method used to control smallpox. The study of vaccination began in earnest in the late 1700s, and replaced variolation by the 1800s. It was not until May 8, 1980 that the World Health Assembly declared the world free of the disease. According to the CDC, “Eradication of smallpox is considered the biggest achievement in international health.” Measles, whose symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose and eyes, and sometimes an encephalitis infection (brain swelling that can cause brain damage), was eliminated from the United States in 2000, thanks to the available vaccine. Because measles was not eradicated worldwide, and helped by an anti-vaccine movement, cases of measles have once again been seen in the US, with the largest number of cases since 2000 occurring in 2019.