The New-England Courant and the Smallpox Inoculation Controversy
HEN James Franklin began The New-England Courant in 1721, the most serious controversy the newspaper addressed was a medical one. As a smallpox epidemic raged in Boston, its ministers and physicians stood divided over whether to use inoculation against smallpox—the ministers, led by Cotton Mather, supported inoculation while almost all the physicians except Zabdiel Boylston feared that inoculation would spread the disease. Click here to read the online display of The New-England Courant, Number 20, 11-18 December 1721, in which the smallpox issue was the lead essay.
In his diary entry for December 9, 1721, Cotton Mather declared: "Warnings are to be given unto the wicked Printer, and his Accomplices, who every week publish a Vile paper to lessen and Blacken the ministers of the Town & render their Ministry ineffectual. A Wickedness never parallel’d any where upon the Face the Earth!"
While James Franklin claimed to be neutral, his newspaper gave the anti-inoculation forces a forum for their protests. In addition to coverage in The New-England Courant, James Franklin published several pamphlets against inoculation. These include John Williams' Several arguments proving, that inoculating the small pox is not contained in the law of physick, either natural or divine, and therefore unlawful: Together with a reply to two short pieces, one by the Rev. Dr. Increase Mather, and another by an anonymous author, intituled, Sentiments on the small pox inoculated.: And also, a short answer to a late letter in the New England courant in 1721 and the physician William Douglass' The abuses and scandals of some late pamphlets in favour of inoculation of the small pox, modestly obviated, and inoculation further consider’d in a letter to A- S- M.D. & F.R.S. in London in 1722. Boston's smallpox outbreaks were notable enough to be listed, alongside of its Great Fires, on Capt. John Bonner's 1722 map, The Town of Boston in New England; please see the online presentation of a facsimile of this map.
Through the years, the newspaper would also struggle against the Boston establishment over religion, politics, and free speech. In old age, Benjamin Franklin (who learned aspects of the newspaper and printing trade by working as an apprentice to his brother, James) would look back with considerable fondness (and humor) on the lessons he learned from the Rev. Cotton Mather when he lived in Boston. Click here to see the online presentation of a letter from Franklin in which he recalls Boston. It is ironic, however, that Franklin, who would become the greatest American scientist of his age, began his publishing career by helping to print arguments against a medical breakthrough.