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COLLECTION Identifier: H MS c16

Benjamin Waterhouse papers


The Benjamin Waterhouse papers, 1738-1955 (inclusive), 1778-1837 (bulk), contain correspondence to Waterhouse from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Edward Jenner, Sylvanus Fansher, Peter Oliver, and others, frequently about smallpox vaccination; copies of Waterhouse's outgoing correspondence; manuscripts containing notes for lectures he delivered at Harvard Medical School and other places; his writings on medicine and botany; and some correspondence and manuscripts pertaining to relations with Harvard. Also includes family papers.


  • Creation: 1738-1955 (inclusive),
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1778-1837 .


Language of Materials

Collection is in English, French, and Latin.

Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Access requires advance notice. Contact Public Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The Harvard Medical Library does not hold copyright on all materials in the collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting any third-party copyright holders for permission to reproduce or publish. For more information on the Center's use, publication, and reproduction policies, view our Reproductions and Use Policy.


02.25 cubic feet (6 flat storage boxes)

The papers of Benjamin Waterhouse, 1738-1955 (inclusive), 1778-1837 (bulk), contain correspondence to Waterhouse from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Edward Jenner, Sylvanus Fansher, Peter Oliver, and others, frequently about smallpox vaccination; copies of Waterhouse's outgoing correspondence; manuscripts containing notes for lectures he delivered at Harvard Medical School and other places; his writings on medicine and botany; and some correspondence and manuscripts pertaining to relations with Harvard. Also includes family papers.

The correspondence from Jefferson show the President's support for vaccination against smallpox and discuss vaccine matter sent by Waterhouse; his ideas on agriculture, especially benefits of a variety of rice he introduced into America; and his views of Waterhouse's book The Botanist. A copy of Waterhouse's correspondence to Jefferson concerns his interest in Benjamin Rush's position as treasurer of the Mint, as well as the new post of surgeon general, and his desire to leave Massachusetts. Madison's correspondence discusses Waterhouse's books and concern agriculture and agricultural societies. Also includes a Waterhouse letter to Jenner reporting on opposition to vaccination; requesting some infected thread; and generally discussing colleagues, the smallpox hospital in Boston, and related matters. A letter from Jenner concerns a paper he has written on the origins of vaccination and inoculation.

In Waterhouse’s lectures at Harvard Medical School on natural history and the practice of medicine, he frequently covered the history of medical theories and understanding of human anatomy dating from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire to contemporary times. Specific topics of medical lectures included digestion, smallpox, tuberculosis, fever, and nerves. His lectures on natural history focused on botany, mineralogy, etymology, geology, and meteorology.

Manuscripts in the collection written by Waterhouse are on topics including smallpox and other diseases, botanical classification, and a proposed history of epidemics in the United States. These also include a copy of a Waterhouse letter to the Harvard Corporation, defending himself against allegations he was working against the interests of the medical school.

Waterhouse family papers consist of correspondence between immediate family members and other relatives, including Andrew Oliver Waterhouse, Mary Waterhouse Ware, and Louisa Waterhouse, as well as documents like tuition bills, a marriage certificate, and a last will and testament. There are also papers and correspondence of John Fothergill Waterhouse, including his manuscripts and lectures on medicine and botany.

The collection includes materials that may have either been collected by Benjamin Waterhouse or his relations, or been added to the collection after their acquisition by Harvard Medical School. These include lecture notes of botanist José Francisco Correa da Serra, and several petitions regarding smallpox inoculation in Cambridge. There is also twentieth century correspondence about the collection.

Papers are predominantly in English, with some materials in French and Latin.

Biographical Notes

Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846) was the first Hersey Professor of Theory and Practice of Physic at Harvard Medical School. He introduced vaccination against smallpox using cowpox matter in the United States in 1800. He was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was the head physician at the United States Marine Hospital in Charlestown, Massachusetts from 1807 to 1809.

Benjamin Waterhouse was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on 5 March 1754, to Timothy and Hannah Waterhouse. He was apprenticed to a physician in Newport at age 16. In 1775, Waterhouse traveled to Europe, where under the guidance of his mother's cousin, physician John Fothergill, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, studying medicine with professors such as William Cullen, and then at the University of Leyden in the Netherlands, from which he earned an M.D. in 1780. While attending Leyden, Waterhouse stayed in the home of John Adams, then American minister to the Netherlands. After returning to the United States, he became the first professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (1782) and was one of the three original members of the Harvard Medical School faculty, alongside John Warren (1753-1815) and Aaron Dexter (1750-1829).

After reading a book by English physician Edward Jenner on the use of cowpox matter to vaccinate against smallpox, Waterhouse began to study vaccination, reviewing the available published materials and exchanging letters with colleagues in England, including Jenner. Waterhouse obtained a sample of cowpox matter, a thread soaked with cowpox lymph and placed in a sealed glass vial, which he used to vaccinate his son Daniel, on 8 July 1800. Waterhouse subsequently vaccinated three of his other children, Elizabeth, Benjamin, and Mary. The four children were then experimentally inoculated with smallpox at the Brookline smallpox hospital of Dr. William Aspinwall, and they were found to be immune. Waterhouse sought unsuccessfully to establish a universal vaccination program in the United States, although his supporters included President Thomas Jefferson.

In addition to his position as professor of medicine, Waterhouse was a lecturer in natural history from 1788 until 1809, when his course was abolished by Harvard, and keeper of the Harvard mineralogical cabinet, until this role also was taken away in 1809. Waterhouse's relations with his colleagues were strained by his ambivalence over relocating Harvard Medical School from Cambridge to Boston, and in 1811, members of the medical school faculty sent a letter to Harvard Corporation accusing Waterhouse of publicly embarrassing them and working against the interests of the school. He was dismissed from his position in 1812. Waterhouse subsequently sought work from the United States government. He was appointed hospital surgeon for the First Military District in 1813 and was honorably discharged in 1821.

Waterhouse published a number of medical works, including several on vaccination using cowpox. He also published The Botanist (1811), series of essays on natural history, and an Essay on Junius and his letters, which hypothesized that William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, was the author of letters criticizing George III under the pseudonym "Junius."

Waterhouse married Elizabeth Oliver in 1788 and they had six children: Andrew Oliver (1789); John Fothergill (1791); Elizabeth Watson (1793); Daniel Oliver (1795); Benjamin, Jr. (1797); and Mary (1799). Elizabeth Oliver Waterhouse died in 1815, and Waterhouse remarried in 1819 to Louisa Lee. Benjamin Waterhouse died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1846 at the age of 92.

John Fothergill Waterhouse was Waterhouse's second-eldest son. He studied at Philips Academy, Andover, before graduating from Harvard College in 1811 and University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1813. After obtaining his M.D., John Fothergill Waterhouse began a medical practice in Philadelphia, but he contracted tuberculosis, and died in 1817.

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. I. Benjamin Waterhouse, 1778-1942
  2. ___ A. Correspondence, 1782-1837
  3. ___ B. Lectures, 1786-1836
  4. ___ C. Manuscripts and printed documents, 1783-1942, undated
  5. ___ D. Certificates, membership letters, and testimonials, 1778-1823
  6. II. Waterhouse family, 1738-1844
  7. ___ A. Correspondence and papers, 1786-1844
  8. ___B. John Fothergill Waterhouse, circa 1807-1815
  9. ______ 1. Correspondence, 1812-1815
  10. ______ 2. Papers, circa 1807-1815
  11. III. Collected correspondence and manuscripts, 1788-1955

Digitized Items

View digitized items from the collection:

Related Collections in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, Center for the History of Medicine

  1. Benjamin Waterhouse papers. B MS c10.
  2. Collection of Waterhouse family papers. H MS c17.
  3. Correspondence book of Benjamin Waterhouse. H MS b16.1.
  4. Memoranda book of Benjamin Waterhouse. H MS b16.2.
  5. Memoranda book of Benjamin Waterhouse. H MS b16.3.
  6. Place book of Benjamin Waterhouse. H MS b16.4.
  7. A prospect of eradicating the smallpox -- part the second...., by Benjamin Waterhouse H MS b16.5
  8. Memoirs of Benjamin Waterhouse. H MS b16.6.
  9. Commonplace book of Benjamin Waterhouse. H MS b16.8.
  10. On the difficulty of preserving the vaccine virus on thread or glass in very hot weather, by Benjamin Waterhouse.B MS b10.2.

Related Collections in Harvard University Archives

  1. Harvard University. Corporation. Records relating to the Benjamin Waterhouse controversy, 1812. UAI 20.812.

Resources about Benjamin Waterhouse

  • Cash, Philip. Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse : a life in medicine and public service (1754-1846). Sagamore Beach, MA, USA: Boston Medical Library ; Science History Publications/USA, 2006.

Processing Information

Processed by Brooke McManus in 2015 October.

The collection was previously arranged and cataloged by call numbers that reflected approximately five groupings: Correspondence from Benjamin Waterhouse (H MS c16.1); correspondence to Benjamin Waterhouse (H MS c16.2); writings of Benjamin Waterhouse and others, assorted certificates and testimonials created for Benjamin Waterhouse, and correspondence and papers of the Waterhouse family (H MS c16.3 and H MS c16.5); lectures of Benjamin Waterhouse (H MS c16.4).

Processing staff in the Center for the History of Medicine analyzed, arranged, and described the papers, and created a finding aid to improve access. Processing steps included integrating incoming and outgoing correspondence of Benjamin Waterhouse, and grouping all materials in the collection into series and subseries. While the call numbers were eliminated from the finding aid, the original folder titles were retained.

Please note the following abbreviations have been used in folder titles: "A.L." for autographed letter; "A.L.s." for autographed letter signed; "A.D.s" for autographed document signed; "A.M." for autographed manuscript; "A.M.s." for autographed manuscript signed; "MS" for manuscript; and "P.D." for printed document.

Genre / Form




Waterhouse, Benjamin, 1754-1846. Papers, 1738-1955 (inclusive), 1778-1837 (bulk) : Finding Aid.
Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Center for the History of Medicine.
Language of description
Preservation and description was supported in part by the Arcadia-funded Colonial North American Project at Harvard University..

Repository Details

Part of the Center for the History of Medicine (Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine) Repository

The Center for the History of Medicine in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine is one of the world's leading resources for the study of the history of health and medicine. Our mission is to enable the history of medicine and public health to inform healthcare, the health sciences, and the societies in which they are embedded.

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