mRNA Fears Recall Smallpox Inoculation Scare in 1721

Vern Scott
6 min readJun 1, 2021


In 1721, smallpox was ravaging Early America…Cotton Mather and others stumbled upon a preventative…skin inoculation with the virus, and yet fear and hysteria fueled rejection of this “vaccine”. Despite similar Cowpox inoculations by Dr. Edward Jenner in 1796, smallpox was not systematically addressed until 1958. Today, the mRNA vaccines are not only successful in fighting Covid-19, but offer hope as a vaccine for Cancer, Ebola, Malaria, and a host of other diseases. Will fears, untruths and hysterias win out once again?

Cotton Mather, with the help of African slave Onesimus and Physician Zabdiel Boylston, may have brought inoculation and clinical trial to America. Mather’s unification of science and religion in virology is a refreshing contrast to today.

The year was 1721, the place Boston, Mass. The smallpox virus (Variola Major) was raging across the city, infecting over half the population, with a mortality rate of around 15%. Ironically, one of the Puritan leaders (named Cotton Mather), had found a preventative for smallpox, learned from a West African slave named Onesimus. The procedure had come from Turkey, and involved puncturing the skin with scabs from the live virus, which allowed the patient to develop an immunity (those who caught the airborne version of the disease did not develop this immunity). Mather’s call out to Boston physicians produced one advocate, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, and one critic, Dr. William Douglass. Douglass was afraid that inoculation was untested, would spread the disease, and “was against God’s will”. Mather and Boylston subsequently inoculated and kept records on 287 people, of whom 2% died. By 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner had built upon this work, and began inoculation with the less potent cowpox virus (of the related Orthopoxvirus genus), which provided similar protections with less danger to patients. Although Jenner had essentially invented the modern vaccine, a smallpox vaccine was not systematically applied until 1958, and several smallpox epidemics ensued. (,2014),(Riedel,2005),(Henderson,Moss,1998)

An interesting side note is the construct of Cotton Mather, who might’ve been considered a leading Evangelical voice of his day (he was also the son of the influential Increase Mather and grandson of leading Puritan John Cotton). Unlike many modern Evangelicals, he was also a man of science. He had an advanced degree from Harvard University, and had written a definitive history of New England (Magnalia Christi Americana) while doing important work in plant hybridization. Even his black eye, the Salem Witch Trials, were a kind of scientifically motivated attempt to understand the “possessed” (perhaps thought to be a kind of mental illness at the time). His work in inoculation showed that religion and science need not be mutually exclusive, and that his systematic notation of the results (essentially the first clinical trial) could lead to a cure. People of his time feared inoculation while threatening Mather’s life (one threw a bomb through his window with a note reading “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’ll inoculate you with this; with a pox to you!”…fortunately the bomb failed). This sort of anti-science fervor seems similar to that of today, while current quasi-religious anti-vaxxers lie in contrast to science/religion unifier Mather. (,2014)

The Pfizer mRNA Covid-19 vaccine is in part the result of early research by Hungarian-born biochemist Katalin Kariko

Enter modern times and the development of the mRNA vaccine, in which an element naturally produced by our bodies (messenger RNA) is reintroduced in altered form (similar to the virus, but not harmful), so as to teach the adaptive immune system how to respond proactively. This is pretty much doing what Mather/Boylston/Jenner were doing, but at a microscopic level. After exhaustive clinical trials for safety and efficacy (which reach high levels of confidence), these vaccines are produced commercially. Naturally, the anti-vax people (who believe that all vaccines are bad or even that the vaccinated are infecting the unvaccinated) are against mRNA vaccines. I suppose that Bill Gates himself (when he’s not chasing girls?) may laugh at the “Bill Gates vaccine microchip” theory, as he is smart enough to know that this technology does not yet exist. Someday, there may indeed be a threat (in a rogue totalitarian society) of vaccine for evil intent, but our vaccine infrastructure is currently well-regulated and staffed by highly intelligent and well-meaning people.

The success of mRNA therapies owes to their simplicity and quick deployment. Once the DNA sequence of a virus is known, researchers can quickly read its DNA “recipe”, create a fake piece of virus (often the part that attaches to our cells) and “train” our immune system to foil this mechanism. The mRNA piece typically lasts long enough for this “training”, and soon dissipates (by our bodies natural immune clearing process). In addition to recent success against Covid 19 (the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNAs), mRNA has the potential to be a vaccine for HIV, Malaria, Ebola, Rabies, Zika, seasonal flus, and several types of cancers. While mRNA vaccines employ rapid turnaround, the challenge involves knowing the right “point of attack” (often the attachment point of the virus, which sometimes varies in rapidly evolving critters such as Flu). In the case of Covid-19, mRNA vaccines were begun the day after the Chinese revealed the Covid-19 DNA code, and a vaccine was developed within weeks. Most of the time elapsed before a commercial vaccine was mass produced was taken up in clinical trial, to ensure safety and viability. In all, the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines were a historically rapid turnaround, and so far a huge success. Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson use the Vector Vaccine method (creating immunity with a modified version of a different virus). Noravax uses a Subunit Vaccine (which employs a harmless S-Protein, a part of the virus). Honestly, the mRNA vaccines have shown the highest efficacy and strongest safety record on Covid-19, to date. (Fox,2021),(,2021)

Free range hens are for the most part healthy and happy…but epidemiological diseases are always lurking!

In a nutshell, “natural” is good for you…until it isn’t (some nasty bug comes along that doesn’t care about “natural”). We ran a 400-hen free-range egg business until 2012, and our hens were noticeably healthier (via sunshine, exercise, grass, bugs) than “factory” hens. We vaccinated for the poultry “bad boys” (Coccidiosis, Newcastle’s, Marek’s, in a nod to regional Avian Epidemiology) but almost never lost a hen to disease (mostly to predation, or “Foxnraccoon disease”). But I also knew that the outside diseases might have been lurking, as to believe otherwise would have been irresponsible. When we had dairy cattle, I knew from my large animal Veterinarian father (and my Civil Engineering training) that most diseases emanated from standing water, so I kept my farm well-drained and made sure the manure was spread out (easier in a free-range model). I also knew that despite all efforts and Mom’s colostrum, some nasty cattle diseases could come through (Brucellosis, Leptospirosis, Clostridium Complex, for which cows are vaccinated). In short, free range farming is like sending your kids to public school with mother’s milk, a few vaccinations and exposing them to sunshine, play, and other kid’s runny noses (better in the long run), but also keeping them home when a nasty (like Covid-19) comes through. I don’t really begrudge reasonable factory farm models (who by necessity have more vaccinations as they are like “home schools” which have less natural immunity). Anti-vaxxers seem to think everything is sunshine and natural immunity, and not only is this untrue at times, but selfishly naïve. These people are also floating some very weird New Age and Trump-like conspiracy theories, which threaten good research, personal safety, and the stability of our government. (Butcher, Jacob, Mather, 2019),(Waldner, Kirkpatrick, Lehenbauer, 2017)

So while our scientific community is enjoying this renaissance of Immunology (begun in the 1700s with Mather, Onesimus, Boylston, and Jenner), while responsible, hard-working scientists with pure-motives are on the verge of preventing cancer, malaria, TB, and all the other bad-boys…enjoy the ride! Most people have not delved into history long enough to realize how devastating all of these diseases have been (especially to children), or how they have brought down civilizations. There may come a time when a) Rogue science or Nations will indeed create insidious germ warfare or b) We may be so disease-free that its not good for us (Overpopulation? Lack of evolutionary impetus to evolve?) but look at it this way…if/when these things happen, mRNAs may also be part of the solutions! In any case, though it is good to have a skeptical eye, baseless conspiracy theories and threats do not advance science and understanding. “Natural” immunity will always be a big part of disease prevention, but when the insidious pathogens arrive, we’d better fall back on our tried-and-true mRNA kits.



Vern Scott

Scott lives in the SF Bay Area and writes confidently about Engineering, History, Politics, and Health