Marblehead Museum to host lecture on vaccination drama

On Thursday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m., the Marblehead Museum will host Andrew Wehrman, an associate professor of history at Central Michigan University, for a Zoom lecture on the heated history of smallpox vaccinations during the Revolutionary War.

Wehrman will discuss his new book, “The Contagion of Liberty,” which features the story of Marblehead sailors burning down an expensive private hospital on Cat Island just weeks after the Boston Tea Party.

Edward Jenner performing his first smallpox vaccination, 1796. Oil painting by Ernest Board. COURTESY PHOTO / THE WELLCOME COLLECTION

The Revolutionary War broke out during a smallpox epidemic. Those infected developed high fevers and painful pocks filled with, Wehrman writes: “a viscous milk-white pustular fluid that could soak clothing and bedsheets with viscous material.”

In response, Gen. George Washington ordered the inoculation of the Continental Army. But Washington did not have to convince fearful colonists to protect themselves against smallpox—they demanded it.

In “The Contagion of Liberty,” Andrew M. Wehrman describes a revolution within a revolution, where the violent insistence for freedom from disease ultimately helped American colonists achieve independence from Great Britain.

Inoculation, a shocking procedure introduced to America by an enslaved African, became the most sought-after medical procedure of the 18th century. The difficulty lay in providing it to all Americans, not just the fortunate few. Across the colonies, poor Americans rioted for equal access to medicine while cities and towns shut down for quarantines.

Wehrman will reveal this shocking story and Marblehead’s role in shaping health policy as he connects the vaccination controversies of the 18th century with the COVID controversies of the 21st century.

Tickets are $15 for the general public and $10 for Museum members. Purchase tickets at

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