June 26, 2011

Cold case

Something happened, maybe not on this date, or even this month, but probably in this season, in Hameln, Germany in 1284.  We know that because the first entry in the town record – which starts in 1384 – is this:

Hameln today, photo by Dutched Pinay.

It is 100 years since our children left.

On that, and a stained glass window that once graced the Church of Hameln, is based the legend of the Pied Piper.  The window was destroyed in the 17th century and the church itself is also gone, but the story lives on, in all its various versions.

No one really knows what happened, though one likely explanation is that they were sent away to escape the plague or some other epidemic.  Actually, the figure of the Pied Piper doesn’t make much sense when you realize the rats weren’t added to the story until about 1559.

But the power of that simple sentence to invite speculation has not faded in seven hundred years.

* * *

Charles Newbold got the patent for his cast iron plow on this date in 1780 but the farmers of New Jersey, where he had set up as a blacksmith, refused to buy a single one. They were afraid the iron would poison their soil.

From our vantage point. we can laugh at that, but it really is nice to think of those early tillers of the earth caring so much about the land that they were hesitant to take a step that might in any way damage it.

* * *

Zabdiel Boylston became a doctor, just like his surgeon father Thomas and practiced in Boston, where the Boylstons were a leading family.

Dr. Boylston built this house on Boylston St. in Brookline MA.

Boylston was approached by Cotton Mather – who’d been unable to get any other Boston physician to cooperate – with a pretty shocking idea:  protect people from the dreaded smallpox by giving them a small dose of the disease.

Boylston – who also would do the first ever operation to remove gallstones – must have been very forward-thinking, because he agreed to try it.  He infected two slaves and his own son with the live pox and continued the practice on his patients. It was June in 1721, the same year that in England,  Lady Mary Montague was having her son inoculated – she had seen it done in Turkey.

Boylston’s efforts did not prompt universal approval – at least one person tried to kill him and he was arrested and put in jail until he promised not to do any more variolation (use of live smallpox vaccine) without government approval.  But after an epidemic in which Boylston lost only six of 300 patients, while in the population in general, one in six died, the practice became widely accepted.

Cotton Mather, btw, had been told about the inoculation process by his slave Onesimus, who had seen it done in Africa.



  1. As always, fascinating in every way!
    Thank you


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — June 26, 2011 @ 11:18 am | Reply



    Comment by avery — June 28, 2011 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

  3. Mel was fun. Bet he didn’t write it all but he sure moved it along.


    Comment by Carol — June 28, 2011 @ 5:08 pm | Reply

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