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human progress lesson

The Slave Who Changed the Course of American Medicine

Before germ theory was developed in the late 1800s, people did not know the mechanisms that made people sick.


Heroes of Progress

13-part unit
  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 25: Tu Youyou

    In this article, Alexander C. R. Hammond explains how Tu Youyou’s discovery of artemisinin was “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half [of the 20th] century.”

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 9: Richard Cobden

    Cobden’s work turned Britain, the global hegemon at the time, into a free trading nation – an act that set in motion global trade liberalization that has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 45: John Snow

    This lesson is about John Snow, an English physician and pioneer in anesthesia and epidemiology. Snow’s groundbreaking work led to the widespread adoption of anesthesia as well as a significant improvement in public health around the world.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 13: James Watt

    Some historians believe that the Industrial Revolution has been the most fundamental change in human life since the Neolithic Revolution, when prehistoric humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture. James Watt was a key figure in this transformation.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 34: Alan Turing

    In this lesson, students will learn about the tragic life of mathematical genius and key founder of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, Alan Turing.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 27: Kate Sheppard

    In this lesson, students will learn about the extraordinary life of Kate Sheppard, the inspirational suffragist whose tireless work and petitioning of New Zealand’s parliament in the latter half of the 19th century is largely credited for the nation becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 46: Astell and Wollstonecraft

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of Mary Astell and Mary Wollstonecraft, two feminist authors whose philosophical ideas helped form the basis for later movements for gender equality and female empowerment.

  • Heroes of Progress: Norman Borlaug

    In this lesson, you’ll explore the life of Norman Borlaug, Ph.D. using text and video and consider the lessons we can apply from his story to our own lives and to current world problems.

  • Rosemarie Fike: Women and Progress

    Rosemarie Fike is an instructor of economics at Texas Christian University and a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. Her research focuses on understanding the effects of different types of economic institutions on women’s status and lives.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 28: Lucy Wills

    In this lesson, students will learn about Lucy Wills, a pioneering physician‐​researcher who discovered the link between inadequate nutrition and anemia in pregnant women.

  • Heroes of Progress, Pt. 49: Babbage and Lovelace

    In this lesson, students will learn about the lives and legacies of two 19th‐​century mathematicians and computing pioneers: Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace. These two English polymaths conceived the first automatic computer and recognized that it could have applications beyond mere calculation. Together, they laid the groundwork for modern computing.

Featured article: “The Slave Who Changed the Course of American Medicine” by Paul Meany

In this lesson, students will learn about the history of an enslaved man, Onesimus (pronounced oh NESS ih mus), who helped introduce inoculation to the American colonies in the early 1700s.

Unfortunately, as with many contributions by enslaved people, his role was downplayed or deliberately excluded from the historical record for hundreds of years. As history educators, we must work to rectify this. Read Onesimus’s story and learn how he was instrumental in advancing public health in the colonies.


Before germ theory was developed in the late 1800s, people did not know the mechanisms that made people sick. Nevertheless, societies implemented effective measures to combat the spread of disease, including quarantine, inoculation, and vaccination. Do you know what each of these terms means? How does each of those practices help to protect our health?

Unfortunately, Watch the following short videos about quarantine, inoculation, and vaccination. After watching each video, answer the questions.

Quarantine Explained by Writer Lisa Hilton

  • What is the origin of the word “quarantine”?
  • Where and when did quarantine first develop?
  • What were the effects of the Venetian quarantine policy?

Inoculation and Vaccination Explained by Dr. Josefa Steinhauer

  • What is the dictionary definition of “inoculation”?
  • In your own words, explain the Chinese practice of insufflation against smallpox.
  • When did variolation become common in Europe?
  • Describe how Edward Jenner vaccinated people against smallpox.
  • What have been some objections to vaccines since they were first used?
  • Why do doctors and public health officials recommend vaccination?

Questions for Reading, Writing, and Discussion

Read the article, and then answer the following questions:

  • Slavery was legal and common worldwide until the 1800s. In Boston in the early 1700s, Europeans enslaved Native Americans and Africans. How did Cotton Mather come to be the owner of Onesimus?
  • • It appears that Cotton Mather did not know Onesimus’s wife. The writer suggests that Onesimus and his wife may have lived in separate households. If true, what does this situation teach us about the institution of slavery in New England at the time?
  • Cotton Mather discussed inoculation with Onesimus, a man he had enslaved. Mather then promoted the practice among other Bostonians, not hiding that he had first learned the procedure from an African. What does this fact tell us about the character of Cotton Mather?
  • How did the inoculation method described by Onesimus help the people of Boston during the smallpox epidemic of 1721?
  • George Washington’s order to inoculate the troops of the Continental Army against smallpox was unpopular. How do such anti‐​vaccination sentiments represent a historical pattern?
  • Use your knowledge from the warm‐​up activity. Why did Jenner’s vaccination method replace Onesimus’s inoculation procedure?
  • The F. A. Hayek quote in the penultimate paragraph says that the human ability to innovate and communicate—not the availability of resources—is the driver of economic progress. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Extension Activity/​Homework

Make a Video about a Historical Place
With the advent of YouTube, there’s been an explosion in videos documenting how ordinary people changed history. Often the video creators are not professional historians but teachers, history buffs, and advocates for social change and inclusiveness.

Self‐​described hobby historian Jazz Dottin is a YouTuber who unearths history gems in her home state of Massachusetts. Jazz’s videos usually feature her in front of a historical marker or plaque presenting a subject about black history that has been overlooked by mainstream historians and museums.

Watch Jazz’s video about Onesimus. Think about why Jazz’s presentation is compelling. For example, she’s genuinely excited to tell the story, she’s personable, and she uses a touch of irony and sarcasm.

Your task is to make a three‐​minute video about a historical place in your community. You can choose a well‐​known location or a “hidden gem” (as Jazz calls these spots).


  • Research your local history. Find a location that played a crucial part in your community’s history. A good way to begin your search is to Google “historical markers in ____________.” Another place to look is the local history museum or historical society. Ask your teachers, parents, or other adults for suggestions. Many people are interested in history and will be happy to help you.
  • After choosing your location, research what happened at that spot. Make sure you know the answers to the following questions:
    • What significant event happened at this location? Provide specific details, including the historical patterns or events leading up to the event, relevant dates, and the names of important people involved.
    • What were the effects of the events that occurred at this location? Think about longterm impacts, such as how institutions, social practices, and laws changed as a result.
    • What connections, if any, do you see between this event and current trends?
    • Imagine a counterfactual history. How would history differ if the event had not occurred or had occurred elsewhere?
  • Write a 500‐​word script about the history of the place. (A speaker with an average speaking speed will say about 500 words in three to four minutes.)
  • Fact‐​check your information and include a works‐​cited page with links to your sources.
  • Use your phone to film a video at the location of the historical marker or plaque. Use Jazz’s video as your model. Look at the camera and tell the story as if you were explaining it to a friend.
  • Follow your teacher’s instructions on how to submit the video. One easy way is to upload your video to YouTube and send the link to your teacher. Submit the script and works cited to your teacher for evaluation.