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.
The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721