Library Treasures: Benjamin Franklin, Smallpox Pamphleteer

March 19, 2010 Anonymous

The National Medical LibraryThe Historical Medical Library at The College of Physicians is full of fascinating items, and we’ve run across many of them while developing the History of Vaccines website. One such item is a pamphlet written by Benjamin Franklin and an English doctor, outlining American and English experiences with inoculation against smallpox. This process, also called variolation, involved transferring some matter from a smallpox sore on a person with a mild case of the disease into a cut or scratch on the body of a healthy person. The usually mild local reaction would most often protect the inoculated person from contracting smallpox.

As you may have learned from our Smallpox Timeline, Franklin lost his four-year-old son to smallpox in 1736. He became an advocate of inoculation, arguing that although it was not without risk, it was far safer than natural infection.

In 1759, Franklin asked a friend, London physician William Heberden, to write a pamphlet outlining the process of inoculation, so that anyone could learn how to perform the operation. Franklin then wrote an introduction for the pamphlet, stating that Heberden paid for printing “a very large impression” of the pamphlet to be distributed for free in America. A copy of the pamphlet “Some Account Of the Success of Inoculation for the Small-Pox in England and America together with Plain Instructions, By which any Person may be enabled to perform the Operation, and conduct the Patient through the Distemper,” is in the Historical Medical Library.

Title page from Franklin and Heberden’s pamphlet. The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia

In his introduction, Franklin wrote:

A small Pamphlet wrote in plain language by some skillful Physician, and publish’d, directing what preparations of the body should be used before the Inoculation of children, what precautions to avoid giving the infection at the same time in the common way, and how the operation is to be performed, the incisions dress’d, the patient treated, and on the appearance of what symptoms a Physician is to be called, &c. might by encouraging parents to inoculate their own children, be a means of removing that objection of the expence, render the practice much more general, and thereby save the lives of thousands.

Heberden, in his introduction to his own instructions, wrote:

Inoculation, as I am well assured, would be much more general among the English on the Continent of America, and of course many lives would be saved, if all, who are desirous of being inoculated, could easily be furnished with the means of having it done.

This consideration has engaged me to draw up a few short and plain instructions, by which any person may be enabled to perform the operation in a tolerable manner, and to conduct the patient through the distemper in those places where it is not easy to procure the assistance of physicians and surgeons: and this practice has so greatly the advantage over every other way of communicating the small-pox, that it would be better to have inoculation performed by any body, or in any manner, than to suffer this disease to come on in the common way, though assisted with all the helps which art can afford.

You can find high-resolution images of the pamphlet in the 1759 entry of our smallpox timeline.