The First Inoculation Debate: A Quantitative Text Analysis of the Boston Smallpox Epidemic of 1721
Dr. Jonathan Hagood
Despite scientific research supporting the use of vaccination to protect against disease, some individuals choose not to vaccinate their children for religious or political reasons. Vaccination is a topic of heated debate today, but this debate actually started in early eighteenth-century America when a Puritan minister promoted the practice during an outbreak of smallpox in Boston. By the end of the 1721 epidemic, inoculation (a primitive form of vaccination) saved almost 300 people, but it also ignited fierce protests. Many Puritan colonists viewed inoculation as distrust in God or were afraid of the spread of disease, and the meddling of ministers in the affairs of “learned men” outraged physicians. This debate provides a case study for analyzing the influence of religious beliefs on public views of inoculation before the development of modern medicine. The study examines a set of digitized documents from the debate using an online tool called Voyant to quantify the word frequencies of religious and secular language used by both supporters and opponents of inoculation. The resulting graphs visually reveal patterns in the language of ministers and physicians and suggest an interwoven relationship between religion and science during this time period. In addition, the study compares this quantitative analysis to a traditional close reading of the texts to suggest limitations of a quantitative analysis and refine conclusions on the relationship between religion and science during the debate. Future research can further develop this text analysis method and potentially apply it to study texts from more contemporary vaccination debates.
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