Left in Andover: The mouth of the Williams River

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

During my childhood in the 1950s, I almost never went to the doctor. My mother nursed us through earaches, measles, mumps and chicken pox with hot water bottles and rest on the living room couch. She dismissed fluoride as rat poison. tetanus shots were resorted to only for serious puncture wounds.

Mom considered vegetarianism, garlic, apple cider vinegar and honey panacea enough for her family. Although she never used the term, she was an anti-vaxxer.

I was fortunate to have been raised in a protective bubble as the polio epidemic subsided, during the golden age of vaccination. We felt safe from epidemics and plagues – terrors of bygone days to be read about in dusty textbooks only.

A marker at the intersection of Routes 5 and 103 commemorates Rev. John Williams, a preacher who gave the Williams River its name.

When I started first grade in Andover in 1957 I was bused with my classmates to Ellsworth Clinic in Chester where I received a smallpox vaccination. I wonder if it was an oversight on the part of my parents not to keep me home that day.

But I knew firsthand what disfigurement smallpox could cause. A friend my age who lived in Weston had contracted it in his native Korea. I was grateful to be protected.

In Asia and West Africa, folk practitioners had known since ancient times that injecting or breathing a small quantity of active or dried smallpox pustule protected against the worst effects of the disease. The mild illness resulting from this variolation, as the procedure was called, conferred lifetime immunity.

Variolation was introduced to white America during the Boston Smallpox Epidemic of 1721 by Onesimus, a slave of West African origin who convinced Rev. Cotton Mather, his master, of its efficacy. The resulting collaboration between the unlikely pair saved hundreds of lives.

Naysayers of the day, led by another reverend, John Williams, accused Mather, who had been active in the persecution of witches at Salem, of having become possessed by the devil himself.

The plaque to Williams.

Williams believed that disease was sent from above, divine retribution for the sins of man. A vitriolic debate raged between the two. Only one doctor in the whole city, Zabdiel Boylston, conceded to take medical guidance from Onesimus.

Out of 11,000 Bostonians, 6,000 contracted smallpox and 850 died.

The Williams River originates in the northern section of my town of Andover. It is named after Williams, who preached a sermon at its mouth, in the then wilderness of Rockingham.

A stone marker at the busy intersection of Routes 5 and 103 commemorates the occasion:

“At the mouth of the Williams River a few rods east of this place Rev. John Williams, a Deerfield captive, on March 5, 1704, preached the first Protestant sermon delivered in the territory that later became the state of Vermont.”

Two years later, Williams was set free and returned home to Massachusetts. His memoir The Redeemed Captive became an instant best seller, cementing his fame.

Williams turned out to be on the wrong side of history. If his eponymous river were a statue instead — during this age of Covid-19 — I can imagine a movement arising to take the statue down.

A Polio Pioneer card found on the internet.

After the success of Onesimus’s West African folk treatment during the Boston Epidemic, variolation, literally inoculation with the smallpox or variola virus, became mainstream practice among the colonists.

However, the good news was not shared with the indigenous peoples of North America. Over time, smallpox and other infectious diseases imported by European settlers functioned as biological warfare, attacking and killing 90 percent of the native population.

In 1796, the British physician Edward Jenner rang out the century with his invention of the smallpox vaccination. He had observed that local milkmaids, with their famously pure complexions, were resistant to the smallpox virus.

Jenner had the insight that this immunity was the result of exposure to the much less virulent cowpox virus. His vaccine would confer this same immunity upon all takers.

Nevertheless, it would take roughly another 200 years, and hundreds of millions more victims before smallpox was declared officially dead in 1980.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Tim Roper says:

    This is yet another good read, Susan. I thank you for sharing your personal and family history with us and love the way you often relate its intertwinement with a broader perspective. Write on, kind neighbor!