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Small Pox in the New World
One professor's contributions to the beginning of the end of a deadly disease.
Benjamin Waterhouse has been called the “Jenner of America.” Born in Newport in 1753, he pursued a career in medicine by apprenticing for several years there, starting in 1770, with John Halliburton. In 1775 he sailed to London to pursue a formal education. There he worked with his great uncle, John Fothergill, a prominent physician and a member of the Royal Society. He continued his studies in Edinburgh and Leyden, where he received his medical degree in 1780. (While studying in Leyden he stayed with the American Minister to the Netherlands, John Adams.) Upon returning to America in 1781, Waterhouse was the most highly educated physician on the continent.

Waterhouse began to practice medicine in Newport but was soon called to other activities. In 1782 he was elected to the Board of Fellows of Rhode Island College—now Brown University—and appointed the first professor of natural sciences. In 1783 he was appointed the first professor of the theory and practice of physic (medicine) at what would become Harvard Medical School. (Waterhouse’s appointment at Harvard was not universally praised; first, he was from Rhode Island and second, he was a Quaker! A letter from Dr. Fothergill seems to have saved the day for him.) Waterhouse delivered the first comprehensive lectures on natural history in America at Rhode Island College in 1786 and 1787 and later at Harvard.

Waterhouse’s ties to Jenner date back to March 12, 1799, when John Coakley Lettsom, a physician Waterhouse knew in London, sent him a copy of Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, published the year before. Waterhouse immediately realized the importance of Jenner’s discovery and on March 16, 1799, published an article in the influential Boston newspaper the Columbian Centinel. Titled Something Curious in the Medical Line, the article described the course of kine-pock (cow pox) infection and the subsequent immunity to smallpox as described by Jenner.

Waterhouse immediately set out to obtain some vaccine or “cow-poxmatter.” In the summer of 1800, he conducted an experiment to confirm Jenner’s observations: he inoculated his son Daniel, age 5, with kine-pox.

“I made a slight incision in the usual place for inoculation in the arm, inserted a small portion of the infected thread and covered it with stickingplaster … on the sixth day there was increased redness … on the 8th, he complained of pain … by the 11th day his febrile symptoms were pretty strongly marked … the sore on the arm appeared to the eye very like the second plate in Dr. Jenner’s elegant publication.”

Waterhouse subsequently inoculated his other children and several servants. To test his experiment, Waterhouse then had Dr. William Aspinwall, who ran the smallpox hospital in Brookline, inoculate his test subjects with “matter taken at that moment from a patient who had it pretty full upon him.” Fortunately for the Waterhouse household, the experiment was a success. He summarized his experiment saying: “One fact, in such cases, is worth a thousand arguments.”

Later that year Waterhouse sent then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson his pamphlet A Prospect for Exterminating the Smallpox, which led to extended correspondence between the two men. Waterhouse supplied Jefferson with vaccine matter in August 1801, and in June 1803 President Jefferson instructed Captain Meriwether Lewis (of the Lewis and Clark expedition) to “Carry with you some matter of the kinepox: inform those of them with whom you may be, of its efficacy as a preservative from the small-pox; & instruct & incourage them in the use of it.”

Waterhouse resigned from Harvard in 1812 but devoted much of his long life to eliminating smallpox through treatment and education. In 1980, 182 years after the publication of Jenner’s manuscript, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated from the human population.

Peter Shank is professor of medical science in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. The Winter 2010 issue of Brown Medicine included an article about Dr. Edward Jenner’s 1798 book, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae. This seminal work on the treatment of smallpox prompted the author to point out Jenner’s connection to Brown.
The Boston Medical Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine
 
 
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