A CONSIDERATION OF RELIGION, TRADITION, AND THE ETHICS OF THE MEDICAL PRACTICE

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon's <i>Virginia Gazette</i>

The first page of Purdie and Dixon's April 14th, 1768 issue of the Virginia Gazette. This contains Dr. John Dalgleish's article on his previous successes with inoculation.

Religion and Tradition

            Religion was a contributing factor to the conflicts in Boston and Charleston. However, religion was treated differently in each. In Boston, there was a surprising split of opinion with religion – many ministers were sided with Mather and Boylston on inoculation. Mather himself believed that inoculation was his Christian duty to inoculate others, and thought that the Devil himself had taken over the people who were against inoculation. Ministers believed that it was God’s blessing to have the operation done. However, Dr. William Douglass and the anti-inoculationists called out the ministers who sided with Mather, saying that they were choosing several men over God. They also believed that bringing sickness upon oneself goes against God’s will, and inoculation is an act of rebellion against God1.

            In Charleston, Providentialists had religious objections to inoculation. One of these objections was that they believed, like those in Boston, that God brought diseases to man as punishment. They believed that there were other methods to treating smallpox that did not challenge God’s will – mostly herbal antidotes that Colonists were already familiar with. On his part, Kilpatrick did not try to deny these views, more so fit them into his own by arguing that God gave man reason and free will, and that inoculating is an act of free will2.

            Traditionally, patients who contracted smallpox were quarantined until they either died or managed to get better. The idea of pre-emptively exposing people to a weakened version of the virus to protect them went against this tradition of isolation. In Charleston in 1738, this was another argument brought up by the anti-inoculationists2.

            Traditional treatment methods and religion were both not major factors in the conflicts seen in Norfolk. That is not to say that they were present in the conflicts, they just weren’t the focus.

 

Medical Efficacy and Ethics

           All three cities saw some form of a medical argument in the inoculation conflicts. However, the difference between Norfolk and both Boston and Charleston was that in Boston and Charleston, both sides were making medical arguments, while only one side was making major medical arguments in Norfolk. In Boston, the major medical argument against inoculation was that inoculation could bring potential harm to other healthy citizens. They mentioned that inoculation endangers the patients, and the way that Boylston inoculated patients spread the epidemic1. In Charleston, the arguments came from two different perspectives. One was quantification of data about inoculation-related deaths. Kilpatrick used quantification of British data as a means of estimation of the ratio of deaths with and without inoculation. Dale and others against inoculation questioned the accuracy of Kilpatrick’s data, especially when applied on a local level. The other perspective revolved around the heavy reliance on the physician. Climate played a role in the severity of smallpox infections and the likelihood of being infected. Anti-inoculationists argued that physicians had to assess climate, severity of the outbreak, mobility of the residents, and whether all these factors indicated that an epidemic was inevitable. This level on uncertainty placed the physicians in an ethically gray area2.

            In Norfolk, only the pro-inoculationists focused on the medical argument. As mentioned, Dalgleish used his past experiences in this April 1768 article to demonstrate the success and safety of inoculation3. Anti-inoculationists, while making the claims of spreading smallpox with inoculation, made no move to challenge the efficacy and ethics of the practice.

 

  1. Blake, John B. “The Inoculation Controversy in Boston: 1721-1722.” New England Quarterly, 1952, 489–506.
  2. Gherini, Claire. “Rationalizing Disease: James Kilpatrick’s Atlantic Struggles with Smallpox Inoculation.” Atlantic Studies 7, no. 4 (2010): 421–446.
  3. Dalgleish, John. Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon, April 14, 1768.
A CONSIDERATION OF RELIGION, TRADITION, AND THE ETHICS OF THE MEDICAL PRACTICE