Discovering Love in a Smallpox Hospital

By Dr. Andrew Wehrman

When I was working on my dissertation, I remember talking to my advisor T.H. Breen about digital cameras in archives and online databases changing the way people research and write about history. Breen quipped, “With all that technology, you should be able to research and write your dissertation in six months, right?” He liked to go to archives with a stack of index cards and write individual quotations and references on each one. The research trips ended with hundreds of cards and he would lay them out as he began writing, which has led to a profoundly productive career. My methods have changed rapidly with technology, and while my research has not churned out faster, it has made my work richer (richer in detail, not money, folks). I will give you an example of how archival photography, online databases, and savvy keyword searching breathed new life into documents that an index card system would likely never have caught.

On one of my first archival research trips in graduate school, I visited the Phillips Library, in Salem, Massachusetts, which has since moved Rowley, Massachusetts. I took photos of the collection labeled “Salem Hospital Records, 1777.” These were detailed medical records of patients in Salem’s smallpox inoculation hospital. While doing my research, I focused on earlier years not expecting these records to become part of my dissertation but photographed them anyway thinking they might prove useful later. I have since found that records like these are exceedingly rare. Most hospital records, especially from smallpox hospitals, did not survive. These were particularly detailed, consisting of 577 patient records spread across two dozen little notebooks and remarkably difficult to read. If you think your doctor’s handwriting is bad, try one from the eighteenth century. The doctor, Edward Augustus Holyoke, listed each patient, their age, and a record of symptoms and treatments given. To make sense of his notes, I created an Excel spreadsheet, to keep track of and draw conclusions about his group of patients.

Among the most interesting details, Holyoke almost always included the number of pocks that appeared on each patient’s body after inoculation. Inoculation—the purposeful insertion of smallpox matter via an incision usually on a patient’s arm—most often resulted in a mild case of smallpox and grant lifelong immunity. This was before the discovery of vaccination, which uses cowpox matter and would confer immunity without the infection (humans cannot spread cowpox). Anecdotally, I knew some patients would get a few pocks, usually on their faces and hands, and in rare cases patients would get hundreds all over their bodies. Under ideal conditions fewer than one percent died from the procedure. Using my spreadsheet, I tracked the number of pocks to look for any obvious patterns. Out of 577 patients, about half received fifty or fewer. Thirty lucky patients received zero, one, or two. However, there were also thirty patients with over a thousand. Only one patient, a baby girl just a few months old, died from the procedure, but other babies went through it fine. There did not seem to be any real pattern for who fared better or worse based on age, sex, race, or family.  

As I was finishing my book manuscript, I came back to these photos and my spreadsheet and began to wonder about those patients with thousands of pocks. Surviving but scarred, did they live long after their inoculations? Were they able to get married or have children? Questions I could not easily answer when I started the project. After an afternoon of internet searching, I uncovered what I think is a love story. I focused my attention on one name in the records: Judith Herbert. Judith was 21 years old when she entered Salem Hospital in spring of 1777 to be inoculated. Hers was a tough case. Although she survived, she broke out with “4 or 5 thousand pustules.” To find out more, I googled “Judith Herbert” in Salem, MA, and found her in several genealogical records available through Google Books and Internet Archive. I even found in Dr. Holyoke’s diary that he attended the wedding of Judith Herbert of Wenham, Massachusetts and Dr. Edward Barnard in 1781. Judith’s marriage was significant since young women and their parents worried that smallpox scars would prevent them finding a husband.  

After finding the marriage record, I found out more about Dr. Edward Barnard. It turns out that he was a Harvard graduate. I knew to search Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, which contains biographical sketches of every student who attended Harvard College from its first class in 1642 through 1774. Fortunately, I did not even have to leave my desk. Volume 18 of Sibley’s is available online via HathiTrust Digital Library. Where I learned that Barnard graduated from Harvard in spring of 1774, helped organize his hometown of Haverhill’s militia company in September, and in October 1775 began studying medicine with Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke in Salem. Barnard was Holyoke’s assistant when his future wife broke out with 5000 pocks in Salem Hospital.

Now, I cannot say for sure that this is when they first met or where they fell in love. But it makes sense that Barnard attended Herbert closely as she battled one of the most severe cases of inoculated smallpox. In my historical imagination, five thousand little cartoon hearts swirled around them—one for each bloody pustule, of course. The scars did not affect a long marriage or a long life but may have affected her fertility. Judith and Edward had just one child together, a son also named Edward. They were married for forty years until Dr. Edward Barnard died in 1822. Remarkably, Judith Herbert Barnard died in 1845 at age 90.

Even though Breen was right that taking digital photos in the archive and searching them against digitized materials online has not made research and writing any faster, I do think it has made it better.

Dr. Andrew Wehrman is a historian of early American history and the history of American medicine at Central Michigan University. His current book project The Contagion of Liberty argues that popular demand for public inoculations during smallpox epidemics in the 1760s and 1770s infected Revolutionary politics and changed the way Americans understood their health and government’s responsibility to protect it.

Twitter: @ProfWehrman