The Inoculation Controversy, 1721
Settlers in America faced many hardships in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but the greatest threat to them did not come from Native Americans, harsh weather, or dangerous ocean voyages. Americans' greatest enemy was disease, especially smallpox. From the beginning of colonization in Jamestown in 1607 to 1625, for example, more than 80 percent of the settlers died from disease. Smallpox and other European illnesses also killed more than 90 percent of all Native Americans who came in contact with European settlers.1
In the eighteenth century, people did not understand that diseases such as smallpox were viruses. Medical science attributed diseases to the body's "humours" or its fluids, such as blood and urine. To treat someone for an ailment, a doctor sometimes bled the patient to drain the "bad" blood from the ailing person. This practice often left the sick much weaker than they were before and actually hindered recovery or even hastened death.
Smallpox was a new disease in America, but it was not a new disease to the European settlers who unknowingly brought it with them. Having had experience with the disease did not make it any less feared. Contracting smallpox frightened not only the person who contracted the disease but also everyone in the region because half the people who contracted the disease died from it. Smallpox begins with symptoms similar to influenza, but, within a week, a rash appears on the face, hands, and feet and soon turns into pus-filled blisters that often burst. The open wounds leave the patient vulnerable to other infections. Smallpox can lead directly to blindness, pneumonia, and brain and kidney damage.