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

An Amazing Adventure in the Archives in Arkansas

by Samuel Malby

This year I was lucky enough to get a research grant from the graduate school, as well as funding from the department to go on a research trip to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The first step of the process was of course planning ahead of time. I was looking for documents related to immigration policy over the course of the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001), but also looking more specifically at primary sources that dealt with immigration detention.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

William J. Clinton Presidential Library (credit: Time Magazine)

First, I used the online Finding Aids to look up what useful documents were available, and what boxes I wanted to look at while I was there. Second, and perhaps the most important step was to contact the archivists and inform them of my plans to visit the archives. They emailed me back with a ton of information, supplementary sources they recommended I look at, and informed me that they had digitized a few of the sources I had mentioned and that those were available online. Therefore, before arriving at the archives I had a list of everything I wanted to look at, and this made the entire process so much easier once I got there.

I flew into Little Rock on a Sunday and had four days in the archives (Monday to Thursday) before flying home on the Friday.

On the first day, I arrived at the archives as soon as they opened at 9 a.m. I only had a few days and thousands of documents to get through, so I did not want to waste any time. I informed the security guards at the entrance that I was here for research and they let the archivists know that I was there. Then the archivists came to find me and took me through a long corridor and up some stairs into the archives themselves. There, as it was my first time, they explained the process, the rules, and the regulations. I received a visitor’s badge, a locker key, and a research card. Next, they took me into the research room and gave me my first cart with ten boxes (ten is the maximum they can give you at any time). On my list I had 34 boxes to get through in four days, but I had no idea how long it would take me. I therefore started off with the most important ones. It is important to prioritize especially if your time is limited. On the first morning, I only got through one box. I needed to speed things up. As I had so much to get through I was not really reading documents, I was mostly just taking photographs of all the useful documents I had before me. For the first few boxes that were related specifically to immigration detention, that meant taking pictures of everything. Some of the first ten boxes were filled exclusively with email exchanges between administration officials. While I am sure some of these contained interesting information, I decided it would be more beneficial to look through other material first and come back to these if I had time (Spoiler Alert: I did not).

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Little Rock, Arkansas (credit: gettyimages)

Between 12 and 1 the archives closed for lunch, so I went to find food. I had lunch at the 42, the restaurant situated in the Clinton museum, on one of the lower floors. As a true Englishman, I had fish’n’chips with a dark chocolate cheesecake with fresh fruits and a strawberry coulis for dessert. The dessert was hands down one of the best desserts I have ever tasted, it was fabulous!

After lunch I headed back up to the archives. I got through box two, and over the course of the day took 1521 pictures. By the end of the day I had a record of all the documents related to immigration detention in those two boxes.

On the second day, I went straight into the research room this time. I started to look at the email boxes, but there were just too many, and the process was too long. I skipped ahead to the final boxes on my first cart of ten boxes. They were mostly about former IRA members who were going to be deported. This was both remarkably interesting and quite unexpected. Who knows, maybe I will be able to find out what happened to them and write something about that one day! Once I got through those, I was done with cart one. The next cart started off with one of the boxes I was most interested in. From what I could see online, it looked like it would be particularly useful for my research and contain lots of critical information. In the end, however, it was very disappointing. It of course contained some relevant stuff but mostly documents that I knew were available elsewhere. However, one of the other boxes I was not expecting to find much in turned out to be a gold mine! Jam-packed full of interesting documents, juicy sources, and controversial material, this was the kind of stuff I was hoping to find.

Back in the 42, I had lunch with one of the other researchers. He was a retired professor of History from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, looking for sources related to narcotics. Over lunch he told me about his interactions in his youth with drug dealers in Colombia and had many other interesting stories to tell. At the end of the day, I took advantage of the heat and the sunny weather to go sight-seeing and took a two-hour walk along the Arkansas River trail.

On day three I went through some more boxes. I found lots of documents on Operation Gatekeeper. It was sunny and warm, so I had lunch outside on the patio at 42 again. I resisted the temptation to get dessert but decided I was going to have one tomorrow to celebrate my last day here! In the afternoon I got a new cart with 10 new boxes. Most of those contained useful and relevant sources. In the evening, after the archives had closed, I headed to a coffee shop to start drafting my article and simply enjoyed being in a city for a change.

On day four, I woke up to thunderstorm and rain. This meant that getting a cab was harder than usual as there were fewer drivers about. My driver that morning was Darill who was originally from Trinidad and Tobago. He was a big soccer fan, so we talked about our favorite soccer clubs and players (and how bad Man United are, everyone knows that!). He also talked about how he was also a musician who played steel drums.

On my final day at the archives, I continued to work through sources. By this point, thanks to my earlier prioritization I was mostly looking at documents that were less related, so I spent a little more time deciding what to skip over, and what to focus on. My aim was to get through it all before I left. I made timely progress and had almost finished cart three out of four by lunch on Thursday. At the restaurant, I ate with the researcher Eduardo again. As it turned out, he was half-Colombian and half-Argentinian. We talked about soccer (the theme of the day), and national allegiances. He was an Argentina supporter, and we talked about soccer rivalries and European football. He also talked about his experience of the military Junta in Argentina in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was a remarkably interesting guy!

After lunch I quickly moved onto cart four. There was some interesting material, but time was running out. I had to decide what to take photos of and what to not get bogged down in. I rapidly got though my final cart and finished my final box with about three minutes left on the clock!

In the evening, the weather was nice, so I went for a walk through the city and eventually stopped off in a bar that had hundreds of beers available. I sat down and drank a few of them and enjoyed my last evening in Arkansas. Life. Was. Good.