As a third generation Puritan minister, Cotton Mather was a spokesperson for orthodoxy and a religious leader in Boston, Massachusetts. He is most well-known for his role in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1691 and was generally disliked for his outspoken religious fervor and self-centered attitude. Despite this imposing personality, Mather does hold an important place in American history for first promoting inoculation.
In addition to being a minister, Cotton Mather was interested in the natural sciences. While studying at Harvard, he took courses in ‘Natural philosophy” and also read his father’s collection of medical books. It was natural then that when he arrived in America, he eagerly continued his scientific study. He owned a microscope and performed experiments in plant hybridization. Between 1712 and 1724, he sent 82 descriptions of indigenous objects to the Royal society of London (of which he was a member). Some of these accounts were mythical such as a black snake that fell from the sky, but others were read at society meetings and published, making important contributions to the first records of American wildlife. When Mather lost his second wife and three children during a measles epidemic in 1713, he published a pamphlet informing the poor about the disease and recommending honey and tea instead of the traditional treatments of bloodletting and vomiting.
Over the course of his lifetime he amassed one of the largest private collections of books in the colonies and published 444 books and pamphlets of his own. One of his books, The Christian Philosopher (1721), is an explanation of all the new discoveries and theories in science of the time from his perspective. In this volume he wrote, “Philosophy [Science] is no enemy, but a mighty and wonderous incentive to religion. Science produces a spirt of devotion and charity,” as man contemplates, “the works of the glorious God in the creation of the world.”1 His last book, The Angel of Bethesda contains a collection of all of the medical information he had gathered during his lifetime. It is saturated with religious metaphors, but Mather also reveals an intriguing level of understanding of disease, describing inoculation as engaging the body into a battle to fight off the smallpox before it reaches “the citadel.”2 Thus, Mather’s work forms an important link between Puritan theology and scientific inquiry.
1. Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher. Quoted in Amalie M. Kass “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic.” Massachusetts Historical Review 14 (January 2012): 1–52.
2. Cotton Mather, The Angel of Bethesda. Quoted in Amalie M. Kass “Boston’s Historic Smallpox Epidemic.”
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