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Tracing modern medicine back to Africa.

During the month of February, we highlighted some of the public health work from Black people in our community. Some of their work wouldn’t be possible without historical medical impacts from Africa.

The man who set the stage for vaccine.

We know vaccines are key to ending any pandemic. The same was true during the smallpox pandemic in the early 1700s. It was all thanks to an enslaved West African man named Onesimus.

What we now call vaccination started as variolation. During the smallpox pandemic it was practice to take the puss of an infected person and rub it into an open wound on someone who wasn’t infected. This boosted people’s immunity against smallpox. If they did get it, they had a milder case.

Onesimus knew of this practice from living in Africa, and told his enslaver, Cotton Mather, an evangelist in Boston.

With the help of another doctor, they inoculated about 242 people and only 6 died. The result was a 1 in 40 death rate, compared to the 1 in 5 death rate without it.

Onesimus set the stage for modern vaccine. In 1796, the first smallpox vaccine was administered in Boston.

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The father of science and medicine.

We can trace some medical and scientific terms we use today back to an Egyptian physician and mathematician named Imhotep. He’s known as one of the fathers of science and medicine. Imhotep is not be confused with Hippocrates, a Greek physician known as the father of modern medicine. Hippocrates is said to have established the basics of medicine.

But Imhotep lived 2,200 years before Hippocrates was even born. He lived around 2667-2600 BCE and was a priest, poet, physician, mathematician astronomer and architect.

Imhotep diagnosed and treated more than 200 diseases including tuberculosis, appendicitis, gout, gallstones and arthritis.

He also authored an Egyptian medical text with 100 anatomical terms and 48 descriptions for injuries and their treatment. The U.S. National Library of Medicine says it shows some of the earliest medical ethics because of notes about how to properly treat a patient.

Connecting the past to the present.

The stories of Onesimus and Imhotep are just some of the stories of Black people in history and their impact to modern medicine.

Their stories are an important reminder of how we got here.

Black history is American history, visit our Black History Month page to see how we celebrate, honor and recognize Black history all year long.