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Bryce Traister

Professor, Dean


Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies

COVID-19 Research Area(s)
Social Impacts

Research Specializations

In 2015, Dr. Traister came across a reference to a smallpox breakout in Boston in 1721. Such breakouts were frequent, but this was one of the worst—nearly 1/10th of the population died. But what was more unusual was the novel “cure” being promoted by the Reverend Cotton Mtaher. Remembered mostly for being a pro-hang-the-witches fanatic during the 1692 Salem witch trials. Mather had “discovered” a preventive medicine for the smallpox—taking the pus from an open sore of an infected and putting it into an incision made of a healthy person…and, voila: vaccination comes to early America. It was surprisingly successful, for such a dangerous procedure.

At the very moment that vaccination becomes “a thing” in the colonial US, anti-vaccination rhetoric was invented as well and, indeed, vaccination and its denunciation have always been fellow travelers in the US. George Washington ordered his soldiers to be vaccinated (using the new “cowpox” technique), and nearly lost his job because of it. Smallpox outbreaks in the urban US led to the first public health orders to vaccinate—and the first refusals of those orders. The hyper-individualism of certain political beliefs in the US has been a big part of anti-vax rhetoric, but so, finally has religion.