Home Massachusetts Edward Augustus Holyoke: Leading the Charge Against Smallpox

Edward Augustus Holyoke: Leading the Charge Against Smallpox


In April of 1777, a 48-year-old doctor named Edward Augustus Holyoke made out his will and then traveled from his home in Salem, Mass., to Boston to get infected with smallpox.

That was the way people protected themselves against the disease back then. Inoculation involved deliberately infecting a person with smallpox so that he could suffer a mild case of it. That would stimulate his immune system to avoid infection later. Holyoke took careful notes on the procedure. He survived, and went back to Salem where he inoculated 600 people. Two died, but many more probably would have had he not inoculated them.

Over the course of a long and illustrious career, Holyoke would travel about 1.5 million miles, make 250,000 house calls and train 35 apprentices. His medical prowess, however, did not prevent him from suffering a number of premature deaths in his own family.

Edward August Holyoke

He was born in Marblehead, Mass. in August 1, 1728, son of Margaret Appleton Holyoke and the Rev. Edward Holyoke, ninth president of Harvard. His father got himself inoculated in 1721 and survived.

Edward Augustus Holyoke graduated from Harvard in 1746 and briefly taught school in Lexington and Roxbury. Then he found his true vocation, medicine. He apprenticed himself to a physician in Ipswich, Col. Thomas Perry, and opened his own practice in Salem in 1749.

Edward Augustus Holyoke

Edward Augustus Holyoke

As a physician, a major outbreak of smallpox was one of Holyoke’s greatest fears. Smallpox killed as many as 30 percent of its victims, and survivors could be left blinded and scarred. When an outbreak occurred, it caused a public health crisis.

An outbreak in Salem prompted the town to build a hospital for inoculating people in 1773. Holyoke took charge of the smallpox hospital.  People allowed Holyoke to inoculate them probably because they held him in such high esteem. Or maybe he just had extraordinary powers of persuasion.

Inoculation had many opponents, and in Marblehead, right next to Salem, the citizens tore down a smallpox hospital built on an island in the harbor.

Before Holyoke ended his practice in 1821 – 73 years after he started – the old inoculation methods would fade with the availability of safer vaccines.


Slem waterfront ca 1770-1780

Old Man Holyoke

Holyoke suffered a number of losses during his life. His first wife, Judith, died in childbirth, and only four of his 12 children with his second wife, Mary Vial Holyoke, survived to adulthood.

He also faced difficulty during the American Revolution because of his loyalist leanings. He and his wife had befriended the wildly unpopular Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. During the war, he stayed in Salem to care for his patients, but sent his family to Nantucket for their safety. Eventually he embraced the patriotic cause.

Over a lifetime of 100 years, Holyoke became a rock of his community.  Many sought his advice on all manner of business. In 1781, when the Massachusetts Medical Society was founded, he became its first president. Then in 1783, Harvard awarded him the first M.D. degree.

The secret to his longevity? He liked alcohol and tobacco, but rarely ate meat.

By the time of his death at age 100, Holyoke amazed his fellow citizens. At the time, 50 was considered old, and most people only knew Holyoke as a wise and thoughtful old man. As he aged, he grew conscious of how the seasons seemed to blend together and time passed more quickly. In his diary, he recorded:

“Methinks time can scarcely be measured, and ages then appear like years to youth. Yet time is still measured out by hours, days, months, and years – all the same as they were before. What then if they still appear shorter to me – and to me they are shorter. Oh! May I have time to repent.”

This story was updated in 2021.




Daniel C. Purdy August 1, 2014 - 7:28 pm

What a good, wise man.

The Stolen Library That Launched America's 1st Math Genius, Nathaniel Bowditch - New England Historical Society March 20, 2015 - 7:49 am

[…] them, Harvard President Joseph Willard, of Beverly, raised $435.35 from prominent local men such as Edward Augustus Holyoke and Manassah Cutler. They donated the books to the newly formed Salem Philosophical Society. The […]

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