American Portraits

A Pox to You! Cotton Mather, the Inoculation Crisis, and Purpose

In this lesson, students will learn about the work and life of Cotton Mather and how it was shaped by his purpose. They will explore how his actions and his identity helped him achieve a great advancement for modern medicine and through his example, learn how they can pursue their own purpose for the greater good of mankind.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Private Virtue image

Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

In the spring of 1721, Reverend Cotton Mather received frightening news: A sailor from the HMS Seahorse had landed in Boston with smallpox and spread the contagion throughout the city. As the number of afflicted people multiplied, Mather was concerned about the safety of the townspeople, the members of his congregation, and his own children. He had an idea on how to combat the growing epidemic, but it would stir up fierce opposition and endanger his life….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Cotton Mather’s commitment to the people of Boston help you understand your own purpose?

Virtue Defined

Purpose is my answer to the question “why do I exist?” It is the reason for which I exist; it is my goal, that thing to which my actions are directed. It is our answer to the question “what are you for?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the work and life of Cotton Mather and how it was shaped by his purpose. They will explore how his actions and his identity helped him achieve a great advancement for modern medicine and through his example, learn how they can pursue their own purpose for the greater good of mankind.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze Cotton Mather’s performance during the smallpox outbreak in Boston in the eighteenth century
  • Students will understand how they can pursue their purpose in their own lives
  • Students will apply this knowledge to pursue the purpose in their own lives.

Background

Smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases in Colonial America. The disease would spread through port cities about once a generation when a population that had not been exposed to the disease enough to develop an immunity existed. Although inoculation existed in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the procedure was not used in Europe or America.

In 1721, Puritan minister Cotton Mather and physician Zabdiel Boylston attempted to introduce the procedure to save lives during a smallpox epidemic in Boston. Despite great opposition, they proved that inoculation was a viable medical procedure.

Over time, inoculation slowly became popular in the other American colonies. Although it would continue to arouse animosity wherever it was introduced, the medical discovery saved thousands of lives in Colonial America. By the time of the Revolutionary War, General George Washington would order the procedure for his troops and those wishing to enter the Continental Army.

Vocabulary

  • Contagion
  • Afflicted
  • Epidemic
  • Quarantined
  • Inoculation
  • Immunity
  • Mercilessly
  • Blaspheme
  • Invective
  • Irate

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What role did Cotton Mather play in the advancement of modern medicine?
  • How did this discovery benefit mankind?
  • What responsibility does Cotton Mather feel toward his fellow citizens in Boston? How does this shape his purpose?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Mather, Cotton. Diary of Cotton Mather, 1681-1724. Boston: Society, 1911.
  • Tony Williams, Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin, and the Epidemic that Shaped America’s Destiny (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2010.
  • Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1706-1757. Auckland, N.Z.: Floating Press, 2009.
  • Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

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