We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know…We Don’t Even Know THAT We Don’t Know
I read Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson as part of my August 2020 sabbatical sort-of. 388 pages of text, another 65 pages of notes and references. Top of the list for its brilliance and comprehensiveness; staggeringly “heavy” in its chronicling the caste system – the intertwining of race-class-gender – that has kept an iron-clad system of privilege-oppression going in America for 400 years. Highly recommended…and pace yourself.
One of the stories that triggered my curiosity was that of a slave Onesimus who knew of a process from his homeland of Africa that could prevent the contraction of smallpox. He convinced his owner, the revered Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who convinced his physician friend, Zabdiel Boylston, to try the process Mather called “variolation” – inoculating a healthy person with a sample of fluid from an infected person, what we now call vaccination. Of the 240 people Boylston inoculated, only six died, one out of forty, compared to the 1 out of 7 people who died in Boston of smallpox in 1721.
I thought Edward Jenner invented the vaccine that prevented smallpox. I remembered that name from somewhere in my history lessons, so I looked him up and the history of smallpox. (Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination) Yes, indeed, in 1799 the British physician Edward Jenner did discover that inoculating people with cowpox protected them from smallpox, refined the vaccination process, overcame the resistance of the British medical establishment to vaccinate its citizens. By 1800 vaccination had become popular throughout Europe. Jenner is credited with developing and popularizing the process that eventually led to the total eradication of “the scourge of mankind” – smallpox.
The article did say that “Jenner’s work is widely regarded as the foundation of immunology – despite the fact that he was neither the first to suggest that infection with cowpox conferred specific immunity to smallpox nor the first to attempt cowpox inoculation for this purpose.”
In science credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs.
– Francis Galton
The article did mention that the variolation process Mather-Boylston used was known in Africa, India and China long before the 18th century. And the article did talk about the Mather-Boylston experiment in Boston, with no mention of Onesimus or his role. Wilkerson is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist; her research is impeccable, she cites her sources carefully. And offers this story as an example of how the contributions of many African Americans have been lost to history.
Reading this story reminded me of reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. I had picked up the book because of the title and was astonished to learn of the 350,000 calligraphied, illustrated manuscripts on astronomy, law, philosophy, medicine buried in the sands of the Timbuktu, center of Arab culture in the 16th century, only re-discovered in the 1990’s. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even always know what has been lost.
We’re in a time of re-awakening – again – to the struggles and contributions of people whose history we don’t know, never knew, knew and have forgotten or denied. it’s humbling to realize how much we don’t know, how much we don’t know THAT we don’t know.
I encourage you to learn as much as you can learn, that would always be true. A key element in strengthening our resilience – and our sensitivity to other people – is that we can learn, and that we learn that we CAN learn.
Best wishes on your own journey.