Waterhouse portrait by Rembrandt Peale from 1833

On this day in history, March 4, 1754, Benjamin Waterhouse, a pioneer of the smallpox vaccine, was born in Newport, Rhode Island.

Dr. Waterhouse was a physician, co-founder, and professor at Harvard Medical School. He is well-known for being the first doctor to test the smallpox vaccine in the United States, which he carried out on his own family.

Smallpox was a deadly disease that had affected humans for centuries. In the 18th century, smallpox epidemics were common in the United States and Europe, killing thousands of people yearly. Waterhouse, who had studied in Edinburgh, Scotland, had learned about the smallpox vaccine that had been discovered by English physician Edward Jenner.

After returning to the United States, Waterhouse became an advocate of the smallpox vaccine and started to promote its use. In 1800, he became the first physician in the United States to vaccinate against smallpox, using cowpox to inoculate his own family.

Waterhouse’s efforts were not without controversy, as some people were skeptical about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. However, his successful use of the vaccine on his family helped to persuade others to embrace the vaccine.

Waterhouse’s work on the smallpox vaccine was just one of many achievements in his long and distinguished career. He was a professor of natural history and physiology at Harvard, and in 1783, he became a professor of the theory and practice of physic, a position he held until his retirement in 1820. In addition to his work in medicine, Waterhouse was also a political activist, advocating for independence from British rule and supporting the abolition of slavery.

Waterhouse died on October 2, 1846, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, leaving behind a legacy of innovation and progress in the field of medicine. Today, his contributions to the fight against smallpox continue to be celebrated, as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of vaccination is once again at the forefront of public health discourse.

Read more of Waterhouse’s biography here.