Smallpox was nothing new in 1721.
Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak.
Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today's world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.
As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.
Smallpox strikes Boston
Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3,000 years, it ran rampant in Boston, eventually striking more than half the city's population. The virus killed about 1 in 13 residents – but the death toll was probably more, since the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.
What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as “variolation" or “inoculation," and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox “matter" from a victim's scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of “immunity" against smallpox.
Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.
The inoculation treatment, which originated in Asia and Africa, came to be known in Boston thanks to a man named Onesimus. By 1721, Onesimus was enslaved, owned by the most influential man in all of Boston, the Rev. Cotton Mather.
Known primarily as a Congregational minister, Mather was also a scientist with a special interest in biology. He paid attention when Onesimus told him “he had undergone an operation, which had given him something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it; adding that it was often used" in West Africa, where he was from.
Inspired by this information from Onesimus, Mather teamed up with a Boston physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to conduct a scientific study of inoculation's effectiveness worthy of 21st-century praise. They found that of the approximately 300 people Boylston had inoculated, 2% had died, compared with almost 15% of those who contracted smallpox from nature.
The findings seemed clear: Inoculation could help in the fight against smallpox. Science won out in this clergyman's mind. But others were not convinced.
Stirring up controversy
A local newspaper editor named James Franklin had his own affliction – namely an insatiable hunger for controversy. Franklin, who was no fan of Mather, set about attacking inoculation in his newspaper, The New-England Courant.
One article from August 1721 tried to guilt readers into resisting inoculation. If someone gets inoculated and then spreads the disease to someone else, who in turn dies of it, the article asked, “at whose hands shall their Blood be required?" The same article went on to say that “Epidemeal Distempers" such as smallpox come “as Judgments from an angry and displeased God."
In contrast to Mather and Boylston's research, the Courant's articles were designed not to discover, but to sow doubt and distrust. The argument that inoculation might help to spread the disease posits something that was theoretically possible – at least if simple precautions were not taken – but it seems beside the point. If inoculation worked, wouldn't it be worth this small risk, especially since widespread inoculations would dramatically decrease the likelihood that one person would infect another?
Franklin, the Courant's editor, had a kid brother apprenticed to him at the time – a teenager by the name of Benjamin.
Historians don't know which side the younger Franklin took in 1721 – or whether he took a side at all – but his subsequent approach to inoculation years later has lessons for the world's current encounter with a deadly virus and a divided response to a vaccine.
You might expect that James' little brother would have been inclined to oppose inoculation as well. After all, thinking like family members and others you identify with is a common human tendency.
That he was capable of overcoming this inclination shows Benjamin Franklin's capacity for independent thought, an asset that would serve him well throughout his life as a writer, scientist and statesman. While sticking with social expectations confers certain advantages in certain settings, being able to shake off these norms when they are dangerous is also valuable. We believe the most successful people are the ones who, like Franklin, have the intellectual flexibility to choose between adherence and independence.
Truth, not victory
Perhaps the inoculation controversy of 1721 had helped him to understand an unfortunate phenomenon that continues to plague the U.S. in 2021: When people take sides, progress suffers. Tribes, whether long-standing or newly formed around an issue, can devote their energies to demonizing the other side and rallying their own. Instead of attacking the problem, they attack each other.
Franklin, in fact, became convinced that inoculation was a sound approach to preventing smallpox. Years later he intended to have his son Francis inoculated after recovering from a case of diarrhea. But before inoculation took place, the 4-year-old boy contracted smallpox and died in 1736. Citing a rumor that Francis had died because of inoculation and noting that such a rumor might deter parents from exposing their children to this procedure, Franklin made a point of setting the record straight, explaining that the child had “receiv'd the Distemper in the common Way of Infection."
Writing his autobiography in 1771, Franklin reflected on the tragedy and used it to advocate for inoculation. He explained that he “regretted bitterly and still regret" not inoculating the boy, adding, “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen."
A scientific perspective
A final lesson from 1721 has to do with the importance of a truly scientific perspective, one that embraces science, facts and objectivity.
J. A. Philip; Wikimedia Commons; CC BY 4.0
Inoculation was a relatively new procedure for Bostonians in 1721, and this lifesaving method was not without deadly risks. To address this paradox, several physicians meticulously collected data and compared the number of those who died because of natural smallpox with deaths after smallpox inoculation. Boylston essentially carried out what today's researchers would call a clinical study on the efficacy of inoculation. Knowing he needed to demonstrate the usefulness of inoculation in a diverse population, he reported in a short book how he inoculated nearly 300 individuals and carefully noted their symptoms and conditions over days and weeks.
The recent emergency-use authorization of mRNA-based and viral-vector vaccines for COVID-19 has produced a vast array of hoaxes, false claims and conspiracy theories, especially in various social media. Like 18th-century inoculations, these vaccines represent new scientific approaches to vaccination, but ones that are based on decades of scientific research and clinical studies.
We suspect that if he were alive today, Benjamin Franklin would want his example to guide modern scientists, politicians, journalists and everyone else making personal health decisions. Like Mather and Boylston, Franklin was a scientist with a respect for evidence and ultimately for truth.
When it comes to a deadly virus and a divided response to a preventive treatment, Franklin was clear what he would do. It doesn't take a visionary like Franklin to accept the evidence of medical science today.
For decades, researchers have proposed that climate change and human-caused environmental destruction led to demographic collapse on Easter Island. That's probably false, according to new research.
- Easter Island, whose native name is Rapa Nui, is a remote island in the Pacific Ocean about 2,300 miles west of Chile.
- Researchers have proposed that deforestation and climatic changes led to societal collapse on the island, prior to European contact.
- The results of a new study suggest that, despite these factors, the Rapa Nui people managed to adapt and sustain a stable society.
In the popular imagination, the story of Easter Island has long centered on stone. About 900 monolithic statues, or "moai", have been identified on Easter Island, a remote 63-square-mile triangle in the Pacific Ocean whose native name is Rapa Nui. The statues — haunting, hollow-eyed faces — were crafted from massive blocks of volcanic rock by the Rapa Nui people, who settled on the island around 1200 CE.
But for archaeologists and anthropologists, the story of Rapa Nui has often centered on trees, rats, and climate. These are the key factors, some researchers have proposed, that led to ecological catastrophe on the island and, consequently, population collapse.
One popular narrative holds that the growing Rapa Nui population cut down so many of the island's tall palm trees that they depleted their food and logistical resources and inadvertently killed off plant and animal species. Meanwhile, Polynesian rats, which were carried to the island via boat and had multiplied exponentially over generations, contributed to deforestation by eating seeds and plants. Compounding the island's problems were changes in the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which led to drier conditions.
Facing dire circumstances, the natives probably resorted to eating rats. They might have also turned to eating each other, suggested the author Jared Diamond in his book Collapse, in which he states that Rapa Nui is the "clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources."
Busting the Easter Island collapse myth
But the popular narrative about Easter Island could be mostly false. New research suggests that these narratives connecting environmental devastation to population decline aren't accurate. The study, published in Nature Communications, found that while the Rapa Nui people did suffer environmental and climatic changes, they didn't suddenly dwindle in number but rather maintained "stable and sustainable communities on the island" up until the point they encountered Europeans.
To estimate changes in population over time, the researchers tested four demographic models, three of which accounted for variables like climate change or deforestation or both. Their models also incorporated about 200 radiocarbon-dated archaeological samples, which serve as a good "proxy for estimating relative population sizes."
Moai statueskovgabor79 via Adobe Stock
Radiocarbon dating and statistical modeling always come with uncertainties. To minimize analytical uncertainty, the researchers used a form of statistical modeling called Approximate Bayesian Computation. The researchers wrote:
"[Approximate Bayesian Computation] is a flexible and powerful modeling approach originally developed in population genetics, but recently applied in archeology, including paleodemographic research. We demonstrate how ABC can be used to directly integrate independent paleoenvironmental variables into demographic models and perform multi-model comparisons."
The results produced by all four models showed that the Rapa Nui population enjoyed steady growth until the first contact with Europeans in 1722, after which the population seemed to either plateau or decline over subsequent decades. These models suggest that, contrary to previous hypotheses about how the overexploitation of resources led to demographic collapse, deforestation and climatic changes on the island were prolonged processes that didn't have catastrophic effects on the population.
For example, evidence suggests that the Rapa Nui people built productive gardens on deforested land and mulched them with nutrient-rich stone. As for climate change, the researchers pointed to recent studies suggesting that the natives adapted to drier conditions by turning to coastal groundwater sources.
Upending a long-standing narrative
Although the study offers evidence of a robust population prior to European contact, the researchers could not determine which of the four demographic models was most correct, nor did they account for other factors that likely affected the island's population, like warfare. The researchers also did not explore what effect, if any, European contact had on the population.
But overall, the study casts serious doubts on the popular narrative that environmental changes drove down the native population. To be sure, there are dark chapters in the history of Rapa Nui, including civil war, slave raids, and statue destruction; reports suggest that between 1722 and 1774 many of the island's statues were toppled or neglected, likely due to internal conflicts among the natives.
Still, the study suggests that the story of early Rapa Nui is less about environmental destruction than it is about resilience.
The researchers conclude that "despite extreme isolation, marginal ecological conditions, and a series of environmental changes, Rapa Nui people found solutions that enabled them to successfully thrive on the island for at least 500 years prior to the arrival of Europeans."
A Nazi institute produced a Bible without the Old Testament that portrayed Jesus as an Aryan hero fighting Jewish people.
- Nazis created a special institute to erase Jewish presence in Christianity.
- The institute produced a Bible that omitted the Old Testament and completely rewrote the New Testament.
- Jesus was portrayed as an Aryan hero of human origin who fought Jewish people.
The rise of the Nazis in the 20th century was a horrific byproduct of political, economic, and social tensions of the day. It was also rooted in often esoteric and devious spiritual influences and practices, with Nazi philosophers actively attempting to rewrite history and the world's established moral order.
As Jews were being scapegoated and obsessively pursued across the Third Reich, an effort was made by Nazi leaders and theologians to turn the story of Jesus into anti-Semitic propaganda. An organization was set up for the express purpose of inventing an Aryan Jesus and writing a Nazi Bible.
Inventing an Aryan Jesus
Operating from 1939 until 1945, the so-called "Institute for the Study and Elimination of Jewish Influence on German Church Life" was founded with the purpose of "defense against all the covert Jewry and Jewish being, which has oozed into the Occidental Culture in the course of centuries," as written by one of its directors, George Bertram. According to him, the institute was dedicated not only to "the study and elimination of the Jewish influence" but also had "the positive task of understanding the own Christian German being and the organization of a pious German life based on this knowledge."
The institute, based in Eisenach, was organized with the participation of eleven German Protestant churches. It was an outgrowth of the German Christian movement, which sought to turn German Protestantism toward Nazi ideals. The visionary behind the institute, Walter Grundmann, collaborated with the Nazi regime and later the East German Democratic Republic (GDR), spying for the infamous state security apparatus known as the Stasi.
The Cross Was Not Heavy Enough. Poster artwork by John Heartfield, 1934.
An anti-Semitic theology
As detailed in Susannah Heschel's The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany, Nazis aimed to create the theological basis for the elimination of Jews. One mechanism of accomplishing this was the creation of the institute, which taught to erase Jews from the Christian story and to turn Jesus into the world's most prominent anti-Semite.
As Heschel wrote, for the Nazis involved, "Jesus had to be drained of Jewishness if the German fight against the Jews was to be successful."
Following this logic, the "dejudification" institute created the narrative of an anti-Jewish Jesus, bizarrely making him the follower of an Indian religion that was opposed to Judaism, as Heschel explains. Nazi theologians invented a narrative that Galilee, the region in which much of Jesus' ministry took place, was populated by Assyrians, Iranians, or Indians, many of whom were forcibly converted to Judaism. Jesus, therefore, was actually a secret Aryan, who was opposed and killed by the Jews.
In the version of the Bible produced by the institute, the Old Testament was omitted and a thoroughly revised New Testament featured a whole new genealogy for Jesus, denying his Jewish roots. Jewish names and places were removed, while any Old Testament references were changed to negatively portray Jews. Jesus was depicted as a military-like Aryan hero who fought Jews while sounding like a Nazi.
"The Aryan Jesus in Nazi Germany: The Bible and the Holocaust" www.youtube.com
"By manipulating the theological and moral teachings of Christianity, Institute theologians legitimated the Nazi conscience through Jesus," explained Heschel. In the revisions of Christian rituals that were also part of this Nazi effort, miracles, the virgin birth, resurrection, and other aspects of Jesus' story were deemphasized. Instead, he was portrayed as a human being who fought for God and died as a victim of the Jews.
"The Institute shifted Christian attention from the humanity of God to the divinity of man: Hitler as an individual Christ, the German Volk as a collective Christ, and Christ as Judaism's deadly opponent," elaborated Heschel.
Beside the spread of outright lies, one of the most disturbing facts about the institute is that some of the most prominent German theologians ultimately embraced the Nazi vision and contributed to the Holocaust of the Jews. And once it was all over, many of the theologians involved went back to their church life without much retribution.
The skeleton of the world's oldest known shark attack victim exhibits telltale wounds.
- A team of researchers has determined that a man died of wounds from a shark attack 3000 years ago.
- The 790 wounds on his remains, including a missing leg and hand, are consistent with this hypothesis.
- Given how rare shark attacks are, this find is truly remarkable.
Trying to learn about the distant past is often difficult. The remains of ancient humans can sometimes seem baffling, and trying to determine how they ended up in strange places or why they have such odd items with them in their graves can drive archaeologists batty. But when a confusing case suddenly begins to make sense, it shines a light on a small part of human history that would otherwise be lost to the ages.
Such a discovery is described in a new paper published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. It examines the death of a man living in what is now Okayama Prefecture in southern Japan 3000 years ago. It is also the earliest known case of our species having a run-in with sharks.
We're going to need a bigger boat
A multi-angle map of the injuries and completeness of the skeleton. Red points are bite marks, orange ones are overlapping striations, and the purple are fracture lines. White et al.
The remains of the unfortunate person, known as individual 24, were found as part of a larger excavation of the remains of ancient hunter-gatherers in the Tsukumo Shell-mound cemetery site. The skeletal remains are incomplete, and a close inspection reveals no fewer than 790 deep wounds to the bones. They show no signs of having healed but do appear to have been inflicted before death.
The researchers were initially baffled by this. After ruling out a number of possibilities, including that the man was attacked with contemporary weapons or by a land-based animal, they arrived at the notion that he was attacked by a shark. Given the area, it was likely a tiger shark or a white shark.
The likely location of the initial bite, the pattern of bite marks, and the serrated nature of the wounds all support the shark attack hypothesis. His missing left hand is also consistent with a shark attack, and the authors speculate that it was removed while he tried to defend himself. The researchers posit that the man was alive when attacked and died quickly from blood loss and shock. His remains suggest that his body was recovered by his compatriots quickly and was buried in the manner typical of the Jōmon period.
Using updated techniques, the researchers also were able to more precisely date the remains to sometime between 1370 and 1010 BCE. This would make individual 24 a member of a fisher-hunter-gatherer community, likely explaining why he was in the water in the first place.
Does this change our understanding of history?
"The Neolithic people of Jomon Japan exploited a range of marine resources... It's not clear if Tsukumo 24 was deliberately targeting sharks or if the shark was attracted by blood or bait from other fish. Either way, this find not only provides a new perspective on ancient Japan, but is also a rare example of archaeologists being able to reconstruct a dramatic episode in the life of a prehistoric community."
Can a war be won from the air? A group of renegade pilots in the 1930s thought so.
- Malcom Gladwell's new book The Bomber Mafia traces the stories of major personalities during WWII as bombing tactics developed.
- Of particular interest to him were the men who dreamed of precision bombing as a way to make war quick, efficient, and far less deadly.
- He concludes that the Bomber Mafia was ahead of its time.
Humanity has always had the odd idea that one tactical change or new technology is going to make war painless. Nowhere is this dream presented as a greater drama than in the story of the Bomber Mafia, a group of young American Army Air Force officers who hoped to use technology developed by a grouchy Dutch genius to reduce war to a question of hitting the right targets.
Their attempt, their failure, and the triumph of their ideology is the subject of a new book, The Bomber Mafia, by author and frequent Big Think contributor Malcolm Gladwell.
The Bomber Mafia
The Bomber Mafia was a group of young Air Force pilots and officers in the 1920s and 30s. Stationed together in Alabama, they collectively dreamed up a new idea of warfare based around air power. They were led by a young romantic officer named Haywood Hansell. Their ideas were radical and, at the time, the stuff of science fiction.
They argued that a sufficiently large, well armed, high flying, and long ranged bomber fleet would always get through to target destinations, even in the face of enemy resistance. This invulnerability meant that daylight attacks — previously thought to be too dangerous to attempt — were feasible, which increased the possible accuracy of bombing runs. The invention of vastly improved precision bombsights, tools used to determine where a bomb would land after being dropped from a plane several miles up, by Dutch inventor Carl Norden provided the hardware needed to make it all work.
Taken together, the pilots believed that the precision bombing of any target, no matter how well defended, was possible.
In a presentation, these visionaries suggested that New York City could be brought to capitulation with seventeen well placed bombs. Their idea was that by focusing on targets like the electric grid, bridges, water supply, and other vital infrastructure, the ability of the city to function could be destroyed with a minimal cost to human life.
They proposed that entire wars could be won this way. Simple, effective, rapid bombing campaigns would end war quickly. There would be no more battles where tens of thousands of young men die. And unlike other theorists of the day, they thought it could be done without directly targeting civilians.
Bombing theory meets reality
The Bomber Mafia drew up the original plans for the use of American air power in Europe in line with their theories of precision bombing. It was decided that the cornerstone of the Nazi war machine was the simple ball bearing. Despite their small size, they are needed in a huge number of mechanical parts that rotate, including airplane engines. If the production of the five main ball bearing factories, all conveniently located in Schweinfurt, Bavaria, could be stopped, perhaps the war would soon follow.
A large fleet of B-17 bombers set out on a diversionary run, but the main attack force was delayed by weather for several hours. By then, the Germans were fully prepared for them when they arrived, and dozens of bombers were shot down.
Of the roughly 2000 bombs the main attack force dropped, only 80 managed to hit the factories. While ball bearing production dropped for a while, the damaged factories were soon back to full production. A follow-up attack produced similar results. While Hansell thought the attacks were successes and learning opportunities, his men started calling his bomb wing the "clay pigeons" after the targets sport shooters aim at.
While some of the failures against the target were attributable to the delayed takeoff, a large factor was the failure of the bombsight to work in non-ideal conditions. The lack of long range fighter escorts was also a major issue.
While Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer would later suggest that destroying ball bearing factories could have seriously hindered German industry if further attacks were carried out, they never were. The losses were too high and the returns far too low. Over time, the American strategy in Europe slowly evolved to one more akin to simple widespread strategic bombing.
In Japan, things got even messier.
Hansell tried to use similar tactics and got similar results. It was decided that aircraft factories were the economic target this time, and he tried to hit them in the same manner as the ball bearing factories. Again, bad weather delayed attack runs and spoiled those that were carried out — after all, you cannot hit a target obscured by clouds with any kind of precision no matter how effective the bombsight is.
Making things worse, the jet stream, a then poorly understood weather phenomenon with what seemed to be impossibly high wind speeds, made serious attempts at precision bombing impossible. Even if the pilots could keep the plane steady, the bomb would be blown off course every time. Higher ups began to demand that tests of tactics that Hansell protested as counterproductive area bombardment be carried out as their faith in precision bombing as a central tool faded.
While Hansell's last raid was effective in damaging the Japanese aircraft industry, the lag in knowledge of the efficacy of the bombing combined with his refusal to consider new tactics led to his sacking. He was replaced by Curtis LeMay, the commander of the diversionary attack at Schweinfurt.
Bombing: the old strategy becomes the new strategy
While LeMay agreed with Hansell on the ability of bombers to win a war, he disagreed on how to implement them. Rather than bombing a narrow range of targets to bring down an economy, LeMay favored as extensive and brutal of a campaign as was required to end the war quickly — including much larger direct attacks on civilians and factory workers.
His first big idea upon replacing Hansell was to use a new incendiary weapon, napalm, against the largely wooden Japanese cities in a firebombing campaign. This campaign, based on ideas that had been discussed for years and even proposed by other members of the Bomber Mafia, was much more aggressive in its targeting of Japanese civilians than what Hansell had commanded.
The firebombing was conducted at night by low flying bombers stripped of defensive weaponry so that they could carry more bombs. There was little effort to target anything other than the vast collections of wood and paper homes of the Japanese people.
The U.S. Army Airforce dropped ton upon ton of the jellied gasoline bombs on Tokyo on March 10th, 1945. Anyone who failed to flee their homes was incinerated. Some people dove into canals for safety only to asphyxiate when the firestorm consumed the oxygen in the air. Many were trampled by others trying to escape. Others fled to parks designed to serve as refuge points in the event of earthquakes and ensuring fires. These proved no match for napalm. The majority of the casualties were women, children, and the elderly.
The stench of burning flesh reached the planes a mile above the city. Many of the late arriving bomber crews had to use oxygen masks to endure their mission. Some of the planes had to be fumigated upon landing to remove the odor.
The raid on Tokyo likely holds the record for the most people killed within a six hour period. Estimates of the death toll go as high as 100,000. The physical damage was immense. Sixteen square miles of buildings were burned, about 7 percent of the city, and a million people were left homeless. Upon reviewing pictures of the destruction they had wrought, one commander looked at the devastation and remarked, "It's all ashes."
This was merely the first such raid. Tokyo was hit again, and the remaining firebombing campaigns targeted all the major Japanese cities and several minor ones — except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Precision bombing was relegated to a situational tool as weather allowed.
Could precision bombing have worked?
In his book, Gladwell concludes that if it hadn't been for the switch to LeMay's tactics, the war with Japan would have dragged on for much longer. He accuses Hansell of having a case of "true believer syndrome" and failing to recognize when his tactics ceased to work.
For his part, General Hansell maintained later in life that Japan would have surrendered without the need for the atomic bombs, invasion, or Soviet intervention by no later than November 1945. In his memoir, he cites statements by several Japanese government officials who spoke on the subject of how long they thought the nation would have held out before capitulating.
Exactly how clean these tactics would have been is also another question. Recall that the plan to defeat New York City involved leaving the population without water, power, or transportation until they gave up. How that would have translated into attacks on Japan is up for debate, but it certainly would not have been pleasant. Instead of burning to death, perhaps people would have starved to death.
Even if the idea of victory through precision bombing was impossible in the 1940s, Gladwell suggests that everything the Bomber Mafia ever wanted is now possible and an established part of American military doctrines. As Gladwell says at the end of his book:
"There is a set of moral problems that can be resolved only with the application of conscience and will. Those problems are the hardest kinds of problems. But there are other problems that can be resolved with the application of human ingenuity. The genius of the Bomber Mafia was to understand that distinction — and to say We don't have to slaughter the innocent, burn them beyond recognition, in pursuit of our military goals. We can do better. And they were right."
Today, the U.S. Air Force has the ability to hit particular wings of designated buildings if required. Bombers aren't even entirely necessary; drones can do it in a pinch. Technology has advanced to the point that precision wars are possible, though this ability came several decades too late for the Bomber Mafia.
In the end, Gladwell muses that although LeMay's tactics won World War II and were used for decades afterward, Haywood Hansell eventually won the war of ideas. And the world is better for it.