From Smallpox to COVID

We are all familiar with the sadness and loss connected to Covid-19 and its variants.  In order to cope, I urge all of you to turn to herbalists, who calmly, rationally, carefully use plant medicine to respond to disease, grief, death, and also health and living. As an aftercare and bereavement chaplain, I’ve seen the ups and downs that herbalists face and how they help.

COVID-19 and Grief

Until New York-Presbyterian Hospital emergency room physician, Dr. Lorna Breen ended her life in April 2020, after treating COVID-19 patients and becoming infected herself, no one had really taken a close look at the toll this plague has taken on the emotional and mental well-being of first responders. Elizabeth Millard, a writer for Times magazine, wrote that Dr. Breen confided in her family, citing “anxiety, exhaustion, and uncertainty” before she sought an irreversible solution to a heart-breaking problem.

The article states, “After recovering [from COVID], she returned to work, facing back-to-back shifts in multiple locations, but within a few days, she was gone.” She, like so many others, had reached her limit for being able to hold cell phones and iPads up for a patient’s last conversation with family members.

There has thankfully been a decline in the number of deaths from the virus; however, a mental health crisis still looms before us. The fear of suddenly losing a loved one, a job, or affordable housing due to another uprising in COVID cases haunts many of us daily.

To make matters worse, the media is overrun with whistleblowers, naysayers, advocates, and endless confusion, making it difficult for many people to make a truly unbiased, informed decision about their health and the health of their loved ones.

COVID-Related Anxiety for Many

In 2020, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published this statement:

“Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation.”

Many people were afraid to go near a hospital for fear of being infected with this highly contagious, deadline virus. The unfortunate backlash was that some of our more vulnerable citizens died at home. In the media, African Americans were singled out as being particularly wary of the medical system. This is no surprise, considering it’s a well-documented fact that the health care system has a shadowy past where disenfranchised people are concerned.

For example, journalist Van R. Newkirk, II wrote for The Atlantic, “It was a cold March night when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his pulpit towards health care. Speaking to a packed, mixed-race crowd of physicians and health-care workers in Chicago, King gave one of his most influential late-career speeches, blasting the American Medical Association and other organizations for a “conspiracy of inaction” in the maintenance of a medical apartheid that persisted even then in 1966…of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman.” (Newkirk II, 2017).

Health care is a fundamental right. What happened during the pandemic and in its aftermath was a stark illustration of the words spoken in that prophetic speech.

While many African Americans and other underserved populations today have an understandable distrust of the medicinal system, there are also incredible stories of medical contributions made by enslaved Africans and disenfranchised Native Americans during Colonial times that saved generations of people from the deadly pandemic of their age – smallpox.

How an Enslaved African Man Helped Save Generations from Smallpox

By 1638, thousands of infected Africans were forced onto slave ships and left to wallow in their own waste. Last stop, Boston, Massachusetts, where they made history as the first victims of the early slave trade. Out of that darkness–including some of the first cases of smallpox in the United States –came a sliver of light.

The smallpox epidemic was described by historian Susan Pryor to be exclusively “universal” and “fatal,” festering since those previously mentioned African captives had taken root in this strange new land.

In the article, “African American Slave Medicine of the 19th Century,” Colin Fitzgerald shares the little-known story of a West African slave named Onesimus who brought the knowledge of smallpox inoculation from Africa to the United States.

As the story goes, Puritan minister Cotton Mather purchased Onesimus in 1706 and gave him the name Onesimus after an enslaved man in the bible whose name meant “useful”. Before he was captured and enslaved, Onesimus had been treated with a healing technique introduced to West African villagers that required them to seek immunity against disease by rubbing the puss of infected people into their own open wounds.

Although he was living under the distrustful eye of his master, Onesimus eventually shared his life-giving secret in 1716. In his diary, Cotton Mather had referred to him as “thievish” on one hand, and “intelligent” on the other. He investigated what he was told by Onesimus and was convinced by other enslaved people that the man was being truthful. He even traced the technique back to China and Turkey!

Mather did a deep dive into the pool of possibility and began to promote the idea of this early form of inoculation (also called variolation). It was widely rejected by white colonists who were not inclined to trust a suggestion made by a Black man. To say they were hesitant would be an understatement.

As it turns out, this early method of introducing infected material into the body activated the recipient’s immune response and provided significant protection.

Through a partnership with Zabdiel Boylston, the only medical doctor who would entertain Mather and Onesimus’s approach, they tested the efficacy of the technique by inoculating Boylston’s son, enslaved workers, and other Bostonians, in this manner. The statistics were impressive. Instead of the previous one in seven deaths, only one in forty people met their demise (Blakemore, 2021).

Native American Herbal Use During Colonial Times

Native Americans also suffered greatly as their traditions and well-being came under attack by the seen and unseen forces, including smallpox, that nearly eviscerated their tribal existence.

In Cherokee Herbal: Native Plant Medicine from the Four Directions, author, J. T. Garrett shares that Native Americans have a deep connection with Mother Nature. In Colonial times, respect for the roles of plants in their lives was drastically overlooked by the reckless settlers.

Borage flowers close up

Thankfully, plants did not discriminate. As the native people rose up against their circumstances, they asked Mother Earth’s permission to use borage (Borago officinalis), lavender (Lavandula spp.), St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), and vervain (Verbena sp.), along with other locally available plant allies, to support their health and wellbeing.

Asafedita (Ferula asafoetida), a vile-smelling gum resin prized as a condiment in India and Iran,
was used by Africans and also made its way into the Native American medicine bag to ward off digestive distress and viral conditions.

Emma Dupree, A Community Healer

Fast-forwarding to July 4, 1897, a very special person named Emma Dupree was born in Pitt County, North Carolina.

One of eighteen children, she was dubbed “woods gal” and “little miss medicine thing” by the elders because she demonstrated a profound interest in plants at only two years of age. She would wander through the woods, familiarizing herself with plant life through her sense of taste.

Two red sassafras leaves

A love for plants stayed with her throughout her life as she cultivated her garden with sassafras (Sassafras albidum), rabbit tobacco (Evax prolifera), maypop, also known as passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and catnip (Nepeta cataria), to name a few. Honored for her herbal contributions to this day, she made tonics, teas, salves, and poultices for her community until her death on March 12, 1996.

Modern Day Herbalists To The Rescue

Modern day herbal practitioners, like Matthew Wood and Deb Vail, also use herbs, flower essences, and tinctures like rose (rosa spp.), teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) and bee balm (Monarda sp.), to sustain the spirit. They are helping carry on this rich herbal tradition with an added emphasis on the spiritual as it relates to the emotional, mental, and physical body.

Elecampane (Inula helenium) is effective as an antiseptic expectorant for bronchitis, pneumonia, and other serious respiratory conditions.

Mother Nature rewards those who seek her bounty, generously offering various levels of comfort, solace, and relief from pain. It is a known fact that emotional pain can eventually manifest as a physical ailment.

Death doulas are learning new skills and beginning to partner with holistic health practitioners to support those in need of aftercare. When an individual experiences the death of a loved one, depression, insomnia and loss of appetite are the most prominent symptoms of grief.

The next time you are in the position to minister to a person who is grieving, remember that the greatest gift you can offer could simply be an invitation to share a cup of tea that promises a bolstered spirit.


Blakemore, E. (2021). How an enslaved African man in Boston helped save generations from smallpox. History.

Boylston, A. (2012). The origins of inoculation. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, August). Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-10 pandemic – United States, June 23 – 30, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

East Carolina University. (1979). Little medicine thing: Emma Dupree, herbalist.

Fitzgerald, C. (2016). African American slave medicine of the 19th century. Undergraduate Review: Bridgewater State University.

Garrett, J. T. (2003). The Cherokee herbal: Native plant medicine from the four directions. Rochester, VT: Bear & Company

Newkirk II, V. (2017). The fight for health care has always been about civil rights. The Atlantic.

Millard, E. (2021). Dr. Lorna Breen’s family: Doctors shouldn’t be ‘punished’ for seeking support. Time.

Tishma, M. (2021). Body and soul, balance and the Sibyl of the Rhine: the life and medicine of Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Hektoen International.

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