Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse attempts to convince the US Government and the public of the value of vaccinations against small pox. One of his first patients - the President of the United States Thomas Jefferson.

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Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (as Bob Cummings)
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Ellen Howard
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Daniel Waterhouse (as Ronny Howard)
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Himself - Narrator
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Dr. Bartlett
Gene Lyons ...
Dr. Aspenwall
John McLiam ...
John Howard
George Mitchell ...
Dr. Drury
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Eliza Waterhouse
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Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse attempts to convince the US Government and the public of the value of vaccinations against small pox. One of his first patients - the President of the United States Thomas Jefferson.

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28 February 1964 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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Medicine and epidemics in the Early U.S. Republic
31 December 2006 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

If the average American is asked about science in 18th and early 19th Century America, they will point to Benjamin Franklin who certainly was Mr. Scientist in his day. Dr. Franklin virtually created the study of electricity as we know it, and was recognized by his doctorate and membership in the Royal Society. But he was not the only scientist in our country. Among the Tory - Loyalists in the Revolution was Benjamin Thompson, who left the U.S. and settled in London, but later went to Bavaria and became chief adviser to the king of that country. He was made Count Rumford, and as such invented (like Franklin) a stove which proved Rumford's studies on heat (in their way as important as Franklin's work on electricity). And there were others. Dr. Alexander Garden, a noted Carolinian based botanist, found a flower that was named for him to this day: the "Gardenia".

Besides Franklin and Thompson/Rumford others became members of the Royal Society even before Franklin did. One, surprising to us, was the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather. Mather was fascinated in all types of native America phenomenon and wrote to the Royal Society about this - and was recognized for his activities. I think we think it odd because of Mather's fanaticism about Puritanism and also about witchcraft. We forget that Mather disapproved of the evidence used in the Salem Trials (he had his suspicion of "spectral" evidence through "eye-witnesses" like teenage girls and servants). We also forget his most magnificent moment - one never taken up in any movie or television retelling. In the 1710s and 1720s Mather (who had been reading of some experiments) tried to get a crude inoculation system set up in Boston to fight smallpox epidemics. It was a brave fight, but in the end (when he died in 1728) Mather had to admit he failed.

Early America had to combat the same diseases (smallpox, yellow fever, cholera) that attacked other large urban centers in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the centers in Europe and Asia. The worst epidemics were the smallpox and yellow fever attacks. In 1793 and 1794 the U.S. Government had to abandon the national capital (then in Philadelphia) and move south for several months while yellow fever killed off hundreds of people in that city. But by the 1790s there was one major difference. The studies in inoculation that fascinated Mather earlier in the century were gathered and developed by Dr. Edward Jenner into the "cowpox" vaccine to fight small pox. Unlike yellow fever (which would not be cured until 1902) it was now possible to reduce the horror of smallpox.

But this did not take into account superstition and provincialism. The medical profession did not accept Jenner in the U.S. They felt it made no sense to inflict one illness (cowpox) in place of another. They did not realize that Jenner was sure that the momentary infliction of a lesser disease might prevent the greater one. One of the few men in America who did realize this was so was the third U.S. President, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a scientist too, and was aware of the developments of English and European medicine. One of the few doctors willing to try to use inoculation was Boston based physician, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse.

This episode, set about 1806, is how Waterhouse is trying to convince the medical fraternity that it is time to accept what Jenner found (and what Mather predicted) as fact: Innoculate with cowpox, and you prevent people from getting smallpox. But he is fighting more than conservative fellow doctors. The public is not fond of the idea, and soon Waterhouse is facing mob violence. But he is determined to prove his case - and suddenly finds Jefferson willing to help him.

Bob Cummings played Waterhouse, and his determination is met with his nervous reactions to the mobs and opposition. The concluding scene was with John Dehner, in a rare role as a good guy - President Jefferson here. Alone in the 1806 White House (pre - War of 1812 fire damaged), Jefferson is going to be inoculated. And then Waterhouse finds out a secret the President has kept from him, but the only way to sell the public on the use of inoculation. I will not mention what it is, but it is a surprise.


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