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Witch-hunting scientist

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Cotton Mather was born in Boston, Massachusetts, 350 years ago on 12 February 1663. A Puritan minister, like his father and grandfathers, he became one of the most influential religious leaders in America.

Although not directly involved in the 1692–93 Salem witch trials, Mather did influence the construction of the court. Three of the five judges were members of his church and Mather, who believed strongly in witchcraft, wrote an ambiguous letter to them suggesting how they might approach issues such as “spectral” evidence. At first he appeared to urge caution but then seemed to encourage the court to use such evidence to obtain convictions. Allowing “spectral” evidence was said to have swept reason and common sense aside so causing the trials to descend into a “shrieking circus”.

Mather was also interested in science. He corresponded with Robert Boyle and was hugely influenced by his ‘Considerations touching the usefulness of experimental natural philosophy’. In 1716 Mather used Indian corn in one of the first recorded plant hybridisation experiments. Later, he won membership of the Royal Society of London,with his ‘Curiosa Americana’, describing various American phenomena.

A serious threat to both settlers and native Americans was smallpox, with several epidemics between 1677 and 1702. In 1706 an African servant explained to Mather how he had been inoculated as a child. The process he described (variolation) was also promoted in England in the early 1700s by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (PJ 2012;289:213). Mather was fascinated by the idea and urged local doctors to adopt it. One of them, a Dr Boylston, tested the procedure successfully on his son and two slaves but there were many objectors on both religious and medical grounds. Debate raged on after Mather’s death in 1728 but he was eventually credited with helping to end the devastation caused by smallpox.

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