Friday, September 6, 2013

Dangerous Prescriptions

In January 1777, a small pox epidemic was slowly working it way toward Hanover. A group of Dartmouth students petitioned the College and the town to allow them to inoculate themselves. This was before the relatively safe small pox vaccination was discovered. The dangerous inoculation method was to introduce a live strain of the small pox virus into a scratch on the arm. The hope was that a person in good health would develop a mild case of small pox, get over it, then be immune to future infection. Most of the time it worked, but occasionally it had dire consequences. The famed Great Awakening preacher Jonathan Edwards died from taking the inoculation when he was president of Princeton, and, if things went poorly, a group taking the inoculation could inadvertently start a fresh wave of epidemic.

In our collections are several remnants of the 1777 epidemic including this prescription from the local doctor, Gideon Tiffany. The prescription is for a strong purgative to be prepared a fortnight before inoculation and to be taken once in three or four days. What it did was to weaken the system before the introduction of the virus!

The Dartmouth students successfully inoculated themselves but they passed the small pox on to a local native child who was bringing them food. A letter written by one of the students seemed to dismiss the significance of the child's infection...

To see the prescription, ask for DC History Manuscript 777155

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