Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846)

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Benjamin Waterhouse (1754-1846) was an early US alumnus of Edinburgh University's Medical School who co-founded Harvard Medical School and became the first doctor to test the small-pox vaccine in the United States.


Waterhouse was born to a Quaker family in Newport, Rhode Island. He was apprenticed to a doctor in his hometown then, at the age of 21, travelled to Europe to further his medical studies. Having first studied under John Fothergill (1712-1780) (himself an Edinburgh graduate) in London, he spent nine months at Edinburgh University attending the classes of William Cullen (1710-1790), Professor of Institutes of Medicine. As one of the few Americans studying in Edinburgh during the Revolutionary War, he described his anguish on hearing loyalist Scottish crowds celebrating British victories. He subsequently matriculated at Leiden University where he graduated M.D. in 1778.

Later Career

On his return to the United States, he co-founded Harvard Medical School in 1782 along with John Warren (1753-1815) and Aaron Dexter (1750-1829). He was appointed as Harvard's first Professor of Theory and Practice of Medicine, a post he would combine, from 1784 onwards, with the Chair of Natural History at Rhode Island College. In the latter role, he delivered the first course of lectures on the natural history of the United States. He was forced to resign his Harvard professorship in 1814 due to his opposition to a plan to establish a medical school in Boston (and his attempt to set up a rival institution). He spent the rest of his working life as a military medical superintendent in New England.

Smallpox Vaccination

In 1800, Waterhouse became the first doctor in the United States to test Edward Jenner's smallpox vaccine in the United States. As his first test subject, he chose his five-year-old son, followed by other family members and servants. Happily the experiments proved successful, and Waterhouse became a prominent and controversial public advocate of vaccination with the backing of President Thomas Jefferson.

Related Pages


  • John Z. Bowers, 'The Influence of Edinburgh on American Medicine', in Medical Education and Medical Care: A Scottish-American Symposium, ed. Gordon McLachlan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 3-23.
  • Martha Mitchell, 'Waterhouse, Benjamin', [Encylopedia Brunonia, accessed 25 August 2015]
  • Alvin Powell, 'The Beginning of the End of Smallpox: Medical School Professor Benjamin Waterhouse First to Test Vaccine in the U.S.', Harvard University Gazette, 20 May 1999 [[1], accessed 25 August 2015]