2021 Winner: The 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic and the Origins of the Opinion Editorial

Project Information
The 1721 Boston Smallpox Epidemic and the Origins of the Opinion Editorial
HIS 190X, History of the Atlantic World, 1492-1824
The Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721 was a deadly episode in colonial American history. Boston residents were sent into a state of panic and confusion about the nature of the virus and how to prevent it. When an early version of vaccination, called inoculation, was introduced, the public was suspicious, and most local health experts called the procedure dangerous and not to be trusted. A battle over the efficacy of inoculation ensued in the local newspapers, and out of this public debate, the concept of the opinion editorial took shape. The debates were, to my knowledge, the first OP-EDs in any American newspaper.
The smallpox crisis is an interesting example of a historical pandemic. But it is also a story about science clashing with traditionalism in the inoculation debate. This clash is complicated by the fact that the science was hardly proven, that inoculation was a sketchy form of vaccination at best, and that the idea of injecting a disease as a cure seemed outlandish to most. The debates on this issue involved science, religion, opinion, and pure personal attacks, and all these lines of thought were present in the opinion editorials that appeared on the pages of papers like the Boston Gazette and the Boston News-Letter. The ways these newspapers handled the debates, by either acting as mere message boards for people to submit their opinions, or acting with a clear agenda, further raises questions about the role of the press.
My paper tells the story of the different types of responses the newspapers took in the face of a confusing public health crisis. This research shows the contrasting approaches taken by Boston papers during the crisis. And in many ways, it shows the beginings of the debate in journalism between straight ahead, just-the-facts reporting and highly opinionated writing with a clear agenda.
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  • Matthew C Tracey-Cook (Stevenson)