Barbara Heifferon

heiffTitle: Professor of English

University: Louisiana State University

Email: bheiffe@gmail.com

Website: http://www.lsu.edu/hss/english/files/faculty_cvs/item26139.pdf

 

 

 

Description of Work:

Ministers versus Doctors is a book about the first smallpox inoculation in 1721-1722 in Boston.

While previous books have mostly examined, however cursorily, this inoculation project from a purely historical view point, my study focuses on the conceptual language and the argumentative strategies used by both opponents and proponents, showing how these framed and shaped the debate and revealing many of the reasons for the resistance to this practice. Ministers versus Doctors is one of the first books of this kind in medical rhetoric to focus Foucauldian and rhetorical lenses on a particular historic event by examining the controversies through texts of that time. An historic analysis of medical rhetoric using a humanistic set of lenses is rare in this relatively new field. Usually one sees historic accounts with little attention paid to the language or arguments of the time or one sees empirical studies of more recent campaigns and health projects in health communication studies. This study would contribute to the small but growing list of texts in medical rhetoric using rhetorical and cultural studies methodology to examine an historic, medical event. In addition, I extend some of the work of Foucault, first of all applying his insights about medical discourse and power relations to a colonial American medical scene.

Symposium Submission:

Ministers vs Doctors: A Rhetorical Analysis of the 1st Smallpox Inoculation in America

Ministers versus Doctors: The Rhetoric of America’s First Smallpox Inoculation is a manuscript about the first smallpox inoculation in 1721 in Boston. The Reverend Cotton Mather and his physician friend, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, initiated the variolation of almost three hundred people and rather than welcomed by all the Bostonians, this attempt at smallpox prevention provoked an enormous controversy. Although technically the inoculation against smallpox was almost one hundred percent successful on the recipients, the technique was eschewed and abandoned for several decades before its re-emergence. It was, instead, the success or failure of the arguments themselves that determined the future of variolation. Thus my study is unique, because although several authors have dealt with the controversy in a chapter or with a brief mention, no author has done a complete rhetorical analysis of this historic event using the primary texts. Among other discoveries, I was surprised to find that ministers most often argued from scientific viewpoints, while the Boston physicians (with the exception of Boylston) argued primarily from religious grounds.

In Ministers versus Doctors I use Goffman’s framing, Foucauldian, Burkean, Kuhnian and other rhetorical and cultural studies lenses to view the various newspapers, tracts, letters and other publications during the time of this severe smallpox epidemic in colonial Boston. In addition to the discovery of the exchange of discursive practices between ministers and doctors, my book highlights hitherto often neglected facets of the debate of the time such as: Mather first learned the technique from one of his African slaves; Mather used similar phrases to describe what he saw under the microscope when looking at the live smallpox virus to those he used when writing years earlier about witchcraft during the Salem debacle; and some in Boston were resentful of the role of the Harvard elite in the limited, local government (while under a British governor). I am the first to document a number of these discoveries.

While previous books have mostly examined, however cursorily, this inoculation project from a purely historical view point, my study focuses on the conceptual language and the argumentative strategies used by both opponents and proponents, showing how the conceptual language and their strategies framed and shaped the debate. Ministers versus Doctors is the first book of this kind in medical rhetoric and health communication to focus Foucauldian and rhetorical lenses on this particular historic event by examining the controversies through texts of that time. The absence of other texts is in part because an historic analysis of medical rhetoric using a humanistic set of lenses is rare in this relatively new sub-field. Usually one sees historic accounts with little attention paid to the language or arguments of the time or one sees empirical studies of more recent campaigns and health projects in health communication studies. This study would contribute to the small but growing list of texts in medical rhetoric using rhetorical and cultural studies methodology to examine an historic, medical event.

In addition, I extend some of the work of Foucault, first of all applying his insights about medical discourse and power relations to a colonial American medical scene. The American colonial scene shared some characteristics with the European scene at the time, and showed the developing threads of changing scientific and medical discourse that would emerge later both in colonial or former colonial and continental settings. The American smallpox inoculation event took place a number of decades before the changes in medicine post the French Revolution, but revolutionary change in disciplines is set in motion long before those changes actually take place. In this text, one can see the cusp of the later revolutionary changes that will occur in medical practice and medical language. The Mathers’ and other colonials’ medical debate forecast the later professionalization of physicians and their practices, to cite one example. Altogether, this text explains or attempts to give some insights as to why the colonial reaction to a new scientific endeavor resulted in violence. Such a response is often seen more commonly in this country than in Europe and the analyses provide some clues and tease out patterns of response that we continue to see today.

My goal is to acquaint other scholars with the fascinating discursive practices surrounding the smallpox inoculation controversy and shed new light on the historic nature of the classic American science/religion split. In addition, this text illustrates how rhetorical and cultural analysis can be used in medical science to explain interruptions in our discovery and implementation of new treatments and preventative measures. Because relatively few, large historical examinations exist in the field of medical rhetoric, a fairly new sub-field, such a work would add to our field’s foundation and as yet relatively small body of work. Because my ms. features a thorough application of rhetorical and discursive theory to historical medical arguments, it could make a significant contribution.