This distinguished gentleman was the son of Dr. Thomas Boylston, a native of England, who, after obtaining his degree of Doctor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, came over to America, and settled at Brookline, Massachusetts, in the year 1635.
Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, his eldest son, was born in the year 1680. He married Jerusha Minot of Boston, and had several children. He acquired his professional education under the instruction of his father, and Dr. John Cutter, an eminent physician and surgeon of Boston ; and commenced the practice of physician in that town under very favorable circumstances in the early part of the 18th century.
In a few years, he arrived at great distinction in his profession and accumulated a handsome fortune. He was remarkable for his skill, his humanity, and close attention to his patients. He had been led under the direction of his father to the study of Botany and Natural History, which he so successfully cultivated as soon to establish a correspondence with several learned societies and eminent individuals in England, particularly with Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal Society, and one of the most celebrated naturalists of his time. In order to illustrate the subjects on which he wrote, Dr. Boylston spared no labor nor expense in obtaining rare plants, animals and insects, a great variety of which, then unknown in Europe, he at different times transmitted to England. Indeed such were his ardor, industry and research in these pursuits, that he acquired no inconsiderable degree of distinction as a naturalist.
In the year 1721 the smallpox appeared in Boston, and pursued its usual desolating career, carrying with it the utmost terror and confusion. On this alarming occasion Dr. Cotton Mather, the learned and distinguished divine, communicated to Dr. Boylston a publication in the Transactions of the Royal Society, announcing the discovery of a new method of mitigating the virulence of this fatal disease.
This intelligence was from Drs. Timoni and Pilarini (*), being a concise account of the process of inoculation, as then practiced in Turkey by scarifying the skin and applying the matter under a nut shell, but giving no other directions concerning the practice or mode of treatment.
(*) Dr. Emanuol Timoni Aspeck, who was graduated both at Padua and at Oxford, was residing in Constantinople in the year 1703, and was then struck with the instances which he witnessed of the mitigated nature of the smallpox, when the virus was artificially communicated to the human frame. He wrote an account of his observations to Dr. Woodward, by whom it was inserted in the Philosophical Transactions of the year 1714. Pilarini was a Venetian physician, and published m 1715 at Venice a statement of the success of the Turkish practice.
Dr. Boylston was forcibly impressed with the benefit of the discovery, and accordingly, after deliberating on the most safe and expeditious mode of thus artificially introducing the disease into the system, he communicated to the medical gentlemen in Boston the plan he proposed to adopt, and the source whence he derived the first hints of the operation, desiring their concurrence in the undertaking.
But Dr. William Douglass, a Scotch physician of sonic eminence, who had seen the publication in Dr. Mather's possession, and Dr. Dalhonde a French Physician, also of some repute in Boston, united in a violent opposition to the plan, and publicly denounced it as introductory of the plague, which had so often visited and nearly depopulated many cities in Europe and Asia; and declared that the attempt to put it into practice would be no less criminal than murder. The other physicians in Boston not only refused their co-operation in so novel and hold an experiment, but condemned it in their writings, and opposed it in every shape. Dr. Boylston, however, was a man of benevolence and courage, and finding before him a promising opportunity for diminishing the evils of human life, he was not afraid to struggle with prejudice, nor unwilling to encounter abuse in the noble cause. The clergy in general were disposed to aid the project, but a few of the less liberal were instigated to preach against it, and such was their influence, added to that of Douglass and Dalhonde, that the inhabitants became enraged, and were excited to commit atrocious acts of outrage on the person of Dr. Boylston. They patrolled the town in parties with halters, threatening to hang him on the nearest tree. The only place of refuge left him at one time was a private place in his house, where he remained secreted fourteen days, unknown to any of his family but his wife.
During this time parties entered his house, by day and by night; in search of him. Nor was this all; their rancor extended to his family; for one evening, while his wife and children were sitting in the parlor, a lighted hand grenade was thrown into the room, but the fuse striking against some of the furniture fell off before an explosion could take place, and thus providentially their lives were saved. Even after the madness of the multitude had in some measure subsided, Dr. Boylston ventured to visit his patients only at midnight and in disguise.
Undismayed, however, by all this violence, and unsupported by the friendship of any but Dr. Mather, he commenced on the 27th of June 1721, while the smallpox was in its most destructive progress through the town, this untried experiment of inoculation on his own son, a child of thirteen years of age, and two blacks in his family, one of thirty-six and the other of two years of age; and on all with complete success.
This rekindled the fury of the populace and induced the authorities of the town to summon him before them to answer for his practice. He underwent repeated examinations, and although he invited all the practitioners in Boston to visit his patients and judge for themselves, he received only insults and threats in reply. These facts we have thought worthy of notice, as remarkable in themselves, and as in some degree characteristic of the excitable spirit of the times. In thus encountering obloquy and reproach, however, Dr. Boylston but experienced the fortune of most of those who have attempted to innovate on long established usages, or to take the lead in the career of public improvement.
The smallpox ceased its ravages in May 1722, and during its prevalence Dr. Boylston continued the practice of inoculation to all who could be induced to submit to it. He inoculated, with his own hand, two hundred and forty-seven of both sexes, from nine months to sixty-seven years of age, in Boston and in the neighboring towns; thirty-nine were inoculated by other physicians after the tumult had in some measure subsided, making in the whole two hundred and eighty-six; of whom only six died, and of these, three were supposed to have taken the disease in the natural way some days previous to their being inoculated; three of those who died, were his oldest patients.
It appears by the account published by the selectmen, that during the same period five thousand seven hundred and fifty-nine had taken the natural smallpox, eight hundred and forty-four of whom fell victims to the disease, being more than one in six. In the vicinity of Boston it had been still more malignant and fatal. The utility of the practice was now established beyond dispute; and its success encouraged its more general practice in England, in which country it had been tried upon but a few persons, most of whom were condemned convicts and charity children. The daughter of Lady Mary W.
Montague was inoculated in London in April 1721, being the first instance in Europe, and the convicts were made the subjects of the experiment in August of the same year. Dr. Boylston therefore is justly entitled to the honor of being the first inoculator in America, and this even before the single instance of the experiment in Europe had come to his knowledge.
In the prosecution of this good work, Dr. Boylston it has been shown, was obliged to meet not only the most virulent, but the most dangerous opposition. Dr. William Douglass, a Scotchman, violent in his prejudices and bitter and outrageous in his conduct, bent his whole force to annihilate the practice which had been introduced; and Dr. Dalhonde was prevailed upon to make a singular deposition relative to the subject, which, however absurd, the selectmen had the gumption to publish in support of their opposition. The newspapers of the day teemed with calumny and abuse of all the friends of inoculation, and numerous pamphlets were published with the design of prejudicing the public mind against the new practice.
Douglass asserted that it was a crime, which came under the description of poisoning and spreading infection, which were made penal by the laws of England. Some of the pamphlets contained such language as this, "To spread abroad a mortal contagion, what is it but to cast abroad arrows and death? If a man should willfully throw a bomb into a town, burn a house, or kill a man, ought he not to die? I do not see how we can be excused from great impiety herein, when ministers and people, with loud and strong cries, made supplications to Almighty God to avert the judgment of the smallpox, and at the same time some have been carrying about instruments of inoculation, and bottles of the poisonous humor, to infect all who were willing to submit to it, whereby we might as naturally expect the infection to spread, as a man to break his bones by casting himself headlong from the highest pinnacle. Can any man infect a family in town in the morning, and pray to God in the evening that the distemper may not spread?"
It was contended that, as the smallpox was a judgment from God for the sins of the people, to endeavor to avert the stroke, would but provoke him the more; that inoculation was an encroachment upon the prerogatives of Jehovah, whose right it is to wound and to smite; and that as there was an appointed time to man upon earth, it would be useless to attempt to stay the approach of death.
Dr. Boylston during his unjust persecution held a correspondence with Sir Hans Sloane of London, the court physician, who fully apprized of his very eminent services in first introducing inoculation into America, honored him with an invitation to visit London. He accordingly embarked for that city, and on his arrival was greeted with the most cordial affection and respect. He was elected a member of the Royal Society, the first American, we believe, ever admitted to that honor. He was, moreover, honored by being introduced to the Royal family, and received the most flattering attentions and friendship of some of the most distinguished characters of the nation.
The same spirit of calumny and misrepresentation, which he had experienced in his native land, it is said pursued Dr. Boylston in England. He and his practice were violently denounced, and Dr. Wagstaffe and others cautioned the public against him. He continued, notwithstanding, during his residence of a year and a half, to enjoy the respect and friendship of the wise and good in England, and was repeatedly solicited to settle there; but his preference of his native land induced him to forego all the advantages which might result from such a determination.
Before leaving England, however, he published at the request of the Royal Society, an account of his practice of inoculation in America, which he dedicated to the Princess Caroline. This was in 1726, and it was republished in Boston in the following year. A copy of this edition elegantly bound, has been deposited in the medical library of Harvard University by Ward Nicholas Boylston, Esq. Dr. Woodville in his History of Inoculation, observes that Dr. Boylston had the discernment to discover that the smallpox, as usually received, is much longer in taking effect than when communicated by inoculation; and that the latter precedes the former by four or five days: a discovery, of which a later inoculator had taken the credit.
After his return to his native country, Dr. Boylston continued at the head of his profession, and engaged in literary pursuits, making many ingenious and useful communications to the Royal Society, and corresponding with his numerous friends, among whom he used to mention with great respect and affection the Rev. Dr. Watts, who appears in his letters to have been a warm advocate for inoculation.
After a long period of prominence in his profession, his age and infirmities called for retirement; and having being essentially aided in his pecuniary concerns by his visit to London, he was enabled to relinquish his professional avocations and retire with his family to his paternal seat at Brookline, where he passed the residue of his days in independence and comfort. He had the pleasure of seeing inoculation universally practiced, and his efforts crowned with the attainment of a noble object, which has been received as an invaluable acquisition to the science of medicine.
Having retired from professional labors, Dr. Boylston devoted himself to the cultivation of his farm, and the pursuit of his favorite studies. Among his agricultural occupations was the improvement of the breed of domestic animals, particularly of horses, for which his farm was celebrated. Nor was he content with merely breeding fine animals, but being an excellent horseman, he broke them for the carriage and saddle. This practice he followed almost to the last days of his life. He has been seen in Boston at the age of eighty-four, riding a colt he was breaking.
Dr. Boylston possessed a strong reflecting mind, and acute discernment. His character through life was one of un-impeached integrity. He was charitable in his opinions of others, patient under the severest persecution, and forgiving of his bitterest enemies. When his family were alarmed for his safety, he expressed to them his resignation to the will of Heaven, and at the close of his useful life, he was consoled with the reflection, that the spirit of malevolence, so hostile to his merit and fame, became attempered to the grateful duty of enhancing and perpetuating the honor so justly due to his character. He was not disposed to dogmatize on any subject, but communicated his extensive knowledge in the most free manner. These qualities added to the natural ease and suavity of his manners, which had been improved by intercourse with the world, caused his society to be much sought, and to his family and his friends rendered him a most interesting and instructive companion.
His health was often interrupted by severe attacks of asthma, to which he was subject for the last forty years of his life. He met death with calmness and perfect resignation in the eighty-seventh year of his age, saying to his friends, "My work in this world is done, and my hopes of futurity are brightening." He was buried in the family tomb at Brookline, on which is inscribed the following appropriate and just language. "Sacred to the memory of Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, Esq. Physician and F.R.S. Who first introduced the practice of inoculation into America. Through a life of extensive benevolence, he was always faithful to his word, just in his dealings, affable in his manners, and after a long sickness, in which he was exemplary for his patience and resignation to his Maker, he quitted this mortal life, in a just expectation of a happy immortality, March 1st, 1766." His wife died a few years before him."
— American Medical Biography, by James Thacher, 1828