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From Smallpox to COVID-19: Lessons from Canceled Harvard Commencements

By Henri J.X. Brebant
Henri J.X. Brebant is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

A postponed Commencement is trivial compared to the larger traumas the COVID-19 epidemic has caused. But it is still a symbolic loss for our graduating class, the kind of loss that newsfeeds, declining case numbers, and response plans do not heal. There is perhaps only one thing we can say to help: It happened before.

Harvard Commencement has been disrupted many times because of epidemics. The first time was almost 300 years ago, in 1721.

It was a different world then. Massachusetts Bay Colony was a British Royal Province, enjoying a moment of peace between wars with France. You would probably cross the Charles River by ferry, paying a toll that went to Harvard College. Harvard consisted of just a handful of buildings; only Massachusetts Hall survives. The entire graduating cohort would fit in a small classroom: somewhere around 70 white males, split roughly in half between bachelor and master’s degree candidates. The majority of the class would embark on religious or academic careers — among them Isaac Greenwood, who became the first professor of mathematics at the College, and Ebenezer M. Pemberton, who would co-found Princeton University.

As one can imagine, students of 1721 also expected a different kind of ceremony. Commencement generally happened in early July. Students performed orations in Latin and Greek, and answered questions on Metaphysics and Ethics, among other topics. They wore usual black habits, but gowns were not yet required. There were no official personal diplomas yet either, although individuals could commission their own. The governor of Massachusetts would be there, along with the general public. There were some troubles and “extravagancies,” so that year Harvard prohibited mixed drinks with distilled spirits.

But in April 1721, passengers infected with smallpox traveled from the West Indies to Boston on the H.M.S. Seahorse. The disease spread rapidly, killing over 800 people in the city. There was no vaccine and hardly any medicine. Many simply fled — and Harvard decided that only a small, private commencement would be held.

Smallpox did not stop one Boston doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, from courageously fighting back. Boylston was asked in June 1721 by Cotton Mather (the youngest Harvard graduate in history and the son of former Harvard president Increase Mather) to try inoculation, the medical technique of injecting into a healthy patient the cells of an infected patient who had recovered. Though inoculation was controversial at the time, Boylston accepted. He inoculated his six-year-old son and 180-250 people in Boston, of which only six passed away.

Despite his success, Boylston was accused of poisoning and of “taking God’s work out of His hand.” He was regularly criticized in the columns of a newspaper managed by James Franklin, the older brother of Benjamin. Nonetheless, the idea of inoculation started to slowly gain ground — so much so that in 1777, George Washington decided that his soldiers would be inoculated. And in 1796, English doctor Edward Jenner twisted the process by inoculating people with cowpox and successfully created a vaccine.

Although Harvard Commencement would still be canceled several times due to smallpox after 1721, by the time the last smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1903, the vaccine meant that Commencement could be held. And 76 years later, the World Health Organization announced the global eradication of smallpox.

So, what lessons can we take from the story of smallpox at Harvard?

First, Harvard’s DNA is full of stories of epidemics. These start not in 1721, but actually track back to the founding of our University. In 1638, one of the members of the first Board of Overseers, the gallant lieutenant-colonel Roger Harlakenden, died from smallpox. Half a year later, the Board was likely mourning his death when it decided that this college in Newton, Massachusetts (soon to become Cambridge) would bear the name of a generous benefactor who had just died from tuberculosis — John Harvard.

Second, history helps if we are willing to feel smaller than our own. It takes humility to recognize that we still feel as powerless in front of a virus as our predecessors did 300 years ago. But this is the same kind of humility that can help us feel more empathy regarding the generations that will come after us.

Third, change takes more than a lifetime, and we should feel happy about it. It took 258 years and the continued leadership, courage, and creativity of so many others for Zabdiel Boylston’s dream of fully eradicating smallpox to materialize. As we leave Harvard, let’s recall that we won’t necessarily see all the changes we seek. Our action will help future generations, and it should already give us great joy.

We are part of a story of tragedy and epidemy. Our ancestors went through the same uncertainty we do. Their courage, imagination, and unity can inspire ours. They carried on, so we can carry on. And this is maybe worth all the selfies in regalia, the chanting Facebook posts, and the graduation trips that we have lost. It is, at least, the best we can hope for.

Henri J.X. Brebant is a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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