Edward Augustus Holyoke: Leading the Charge Against Smallpox

Edward Augustus Holyoke was born in Marblehead, Mass. in August 1, 1728. He briefly taught school in Lexington and Roxbury before he found his true vocation, medicine. He apprenticed himself to a physician in Ipswich, Col. Thomas Perry, and opened his own practice in Salem in 1749.

Edward Augustus Holyoke

Edward Augustus Holyoke

Over a lifetime of 100 years, Holyoke became a rock of his community. He went from loyalist to patriot, married twice and he treated countless patients. His advice was sought by many who valued his opinions and insights on all manner of business. In 1781, when the Massachusetts Medical Society was founded, he became its first president.

Holyoke’s most significant accomplishment, however, may have been his pioneering work in inoculation and vaccination against smallpox.

Smallpox killed as many as 30 percent of its victims, and survivors could be left blinded and scarred. When an outbreak occurred, it was a public health crisis.

In April of 1764, Holyoke travelled to Boston where an outbreak of the disease was occurring and was inoculated against smallpox. At the time, inoculation consisted of deliberately infecting a person with smallpox in his bloodstream so that he could suffer a mild form of the disease to stimulate his immune system to avoid infection later. Holyoke took careful notes of how the procedure was carried out.

Inoculation was a precursor to safer forms of vaccination, and Holyoke was an avid proponent of it. As a physician, a major outbreak of smallpox was one of Holyoke’s greatest fears. An outbreak in Salem prompted the town to build a hospital for inoculating people in 1773.

In 1777, Holyoke took charge of the Salem hospital, and with smallpox outbreaks occurring, he soon began persuading his patients to be inoculated.

He inoculated 600 patients in groups of 200 at a time, two of whom died in the process. But he was able to prevent a widespread outbreak of the disease. Before he ended his practice in 1821 – 73 years after he started – safer vaccines would become available and the old inoculation methods would fade.

By the time of his death at age 100, Holyoke was a source of amazement to his fellow citizens. At the time, 50 was considered old, and most people only knew Holyoke as a wise and thoughtful old man. As he aged, he grew conscious of how the seasons seemed to blend together and time passed more quickly. In his diary, he recorded:

“Methinks time can scarcely be measured, and ages then appear like years to youth. Yet time is still measured out by hours, days, months, and years – all the same as they were before. What then if they still appear shorter to me – and to me they are shorter. Oh! May I have time to repent.”

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