The Hancock Telescope and the Smallpox Epidemic of 1764

“Boston Harbor, 1764” by Richard Byron
Pamphlet on the 1st Smallpox Inoculations in Boston, 1721

In January 1764, the General Court of Massachusetts temporarily adjourned to Cambridge following an outbreak of smallpox in Boston. In the following months, almost a third of the city was inoculated against the disease, including future president John Adams. An estimated 170 people died during the epidemic, 124 from smallpox and 46 from inoculation. Unlike later vaccines, which are responsible for eradicating smallpox in the 20th century, early inoculation efforts required deliberate exposure to the disease without the guarantee of a milder strain.

To protect themselves, the Massachusetts legislature moved to Harvard Hall. Within a week, their enthusiastic efforts to keep out the winter cold sparked a fire that burned the whole building to the ground and threatened three others. The finest library in the American colonies as well as the best collection of scientific instruments was lost to the flames. Edward Holyoke, by then the 9th President of Harvard College, published a letter in the Massachusetts Gazette describing the disaster, but public agitation over the Sugar Act that spring overshadowed the fire in the Boston press.

The scientific instruments destroyed in the fire included the 1671 “tube” telescope that marked the very beginnings of astronomical observation at Harvard College and a telescope formerly belonging to Dr. Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame). President Holyoke’s catalogue of lost astronomical instruments ended with the all-encompassing lament, “ALL DESTROYED!” This assessment wasn’t strictly true, though the loss was undoubtedly devastating. A single telescope, gifted to the college by Thomas Hancock, narrowly escaped the fire as it was on loan to the second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, John Winthrop.

“Portrait of John Winthrop, 1773” by John Singleton Copley

The great-great-grandson of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop was one of the first American intellectuals to earn the respect of the Royal Society in London. Winthrop used the Hancock Telescope during his journey to Newfoundland to observe the transit of Venus, which was likely the first international scientific expedition sent out from one of the American colonies. Ironically, the 1764 smallpox epidemic in Boston was believed to have spread from a merchant ship traveling from Newfoundland.

By all accounts, the Hancock Telescope suffered no damage under Winthrop’s care, but its return to Harvard College was short-lived. The apparatus disappeared at some point during the American Revolution, perhaps in the nine months from 1775 to 1776 when Harvard relocated to Concord, Massachusetts. It might’ve been purposefully transferred to the University of Cambridge, or extralegally sent overseas by loyalists in the upheaval of war. In the early 20th century, the telescope reappeared in the hands of an English collector named Thomas H. Court. In a letter dated to October 12, 1918, Court promised Edward C. Pickering that the instrument would be returned to the Harvard College Observatory. Their exchange in October 1918 coincided with the height of the Spanish Flu outbreak in the United States where almost 195,000 Americans died from the disease in that month alone, so this is a history that begins and ends with epidemics. For reasons unknown, Court’s promise never came to fruition. As of today, the Hancock Telescope is currently housed at the Science Museum at South Kensington in London.

Science Museum, London
Bibliography:

Blake, John B. Public Health in the Town of Boston, 1630-1822. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Jones, Bessie Zaban. Boyd, Lyle Gifford. Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839-1919. Harvard University Press, 1971.