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Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century

The Great Plague of London, 1665

The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721

“Pestilence” and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century

Spanish Influenza in North America, 1918–1919

Syphilis, 1494–1923

Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914

Tuberculosis in Europe and North America, 1800–1922

The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793

General Materials

Notable People

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Benjamin Waterhouse, 1754–1846

Benjamin Waterhouse was the first successful US practitioner of vaccination for smallpox. He was among the first American colonists to receive an extensive European medical education, studying with John Fothergill in London, taking courses with William Cullen in Edinburgh, and receiving his MD from the Dutch University at Leiden in 1780.

At the time, few formally educated physicians practiced in the colonies, and healers were an eclectic variety of midwives, empirics, and apprentice-trained doctors. Waterhouse returned to the new American Republic in 1782 as a new member of a small medical elite, and he became the first professor of the Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard.


In 1798, Edward Jenner published his celebrated work, An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae, on the use of cowpox matter to inoculate for smallpox. Waterhouse began to study vaccination, reading the available published materials and exchanging letters with colleagues in England, including Jenner.

On July 4, 1800, Waterhouse obtained a sample of cowpox matter—a thread soaked with cowpox lymph and placed in a sealed glass vial. Four days later, Waterhouse vaccinated his children and his servants. Subsequently, the children were experimentally inoculated with smallpox and found to be immune.

Vaccination in the US

Waterhouse hoped to make vaccination universal in the United States, and one of his most prominent allies was Thomas Jefferson. The two exchanged many letters, and Jefferson personally vaccinated members of his own household.

Waterhouse publicized accounts of his work as well as his opinions in newspapers, but his efforts were marred by the perception that, by his insistence that only those with special training should vaccinate, he was attempting set up a profit-making monopoly.

There were additional problems as well: the difficulty of maintaining a viable source of cowpox material and the complexity of the vaccination procedure itself. Vaccination was also frequently questioned by the public, and Waterhouse was unable to accomplish his overall goal of universal vaccination in the US.

Additional Career Information

Despite his success with vaccination, Waterhouse did not enjoy an easy career. Though considered by some to be an agreeable companion, Waterhouse became known among his medical and political adversaries for impolitic behavior. In 1812, he was forced out of his position at Harvard.

After leaving Harvard, Waterhouse became hospital surgeon to the US military. He continued to vaccinate, and developed a friendship with popular medical reformer Samuel Thomson. Benjamin Waterhouse died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 92.


Selected Contagion Resources

This is a partial list of digitized materials available in Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Additional materials may be found by browsing the topic “Benjamin Waterhouse, 1754–1846” and by searching the collection’s Catalog and Full Text databases.

Web Pages

The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721
Domestic Medicine
Humoral Theory
James Jackson, 1777–1867
Manuscripts: Benjamin Waterhouse Papers


Benjamin Waterhouse Papers
Lyman Spalding Papers
   Draft of a letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, 1800


Jenner, Edward. An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae: A Disease Discovered in Some of the Western Counties of England, Particularly Gloucestershire, and Known by the Name of the Cow Pox. London, 1798.
Jenner, Edward. On the Varieties and Modifications of the Vaccine Pustule: Occasioned by an Herpetic State of the Skin. Cheltenham: Printed by H. Ruff, 1806.
Waterhouse, Benjamin. A Prospect of Exterminating the Small–Pox: Being the History of the Variolae Vaccinae, or Kine–Pox, Commonly Called the Cow–Pox, As It Has Appeared in England: With an Account of a Series of Inoculations Performed for the Kine–Pox, in Massachusetts. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1800.
Waterhouse, Benjamin. A Prospect of Exterminating the Small Pox. Part II, Being a Continuation of a Narrative of Facts Concerning the Progress of the New Inoculation in America; Together with Practical Observations on the Local Appearance, Symptoms, and Mode of Treating the Variola Vaccina, or Kine Pock: Including Some Letters to the Author, from Distinguished Characters, on the Subject of This Benign Remedy, Now Passing with a Rapid Step Through All Ranks of Society in Europe and America. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1802.
Waterhouse, Benjamin. [Letter discussing inoculation for small-pox, to Benjamin Russell, publisher of the Columbian Centinel & Massachusetts Federalist]. Boston, Mass.: B. Russell, 1802.


The following sources were used in writing this page.

Cash, Philip. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse: A Life in Medicine and Public Service (1754–1846). Boston: Medical Library and Science History Publications, 2006.
Cash, Philip. “Setting the Stage: Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse’s Reception in Boston, 1782–1788”. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 47 (1992): 5–28.
Cash, Philip. “Further Information Concerning Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse’s Appointment as Harvard’s First Professor of Medicine—1788”. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. 49 (1994): 419–148.
Cohen, I. B., ed. The Life and Scientific and Medical Career of Benjamin Waterhouse. New York: Arno Press, 1980.
Higomoto, Yoshio. “The Democratization of American Medicine: Benjamin Waterhouse and Medical Men in Massachusetts”. Diss., Brown University, 1997.


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