1500 BC-1721 AD: Egyptians used poppy as a source of opium to make morphine to relieve pain; honey was used to treat wounds; Ethiopians began removing tonsils and in 1721, Onesimus, a slave in Massachusetts, provided Americans with the antidote for smallpox.
Onesimus (fl. 1706 – 1717), slave and medical pioneer, was born in the late seventeenth century, probably in Africa, although the precise date and place of his birth are unknown. He first appears in the historical record in the diary of Cotton Mather, a prominent New England theologian and minister of Boston’s Old North Church. Reverend Mather notes in a diary entry for 13 December 1706 that members of his congregation purchased for him “a very likely Slave; a young Man who is a Negro of a promising aspect of temper” (Mather, vol. 1, 579). Mather named him Onesimus, after a biblical slave who escaped from his master, an early Christian named Philemon.
This Onesimus fled from his home in Colossae (in present-day Turkey) to the apostle Paul, who was imprisoned in nearby Ephesus. Paul converted Onesimus to Christianity and sent him back to Philemon with a letter, which appears in the New Testament as Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. In that letter Paul asks Philemon to accept Onesimus “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved” (Philemon 1.16 [AV]). Mather similarly hoped to make his new slave “a Servant of Christ,” and in a tract, The Negro Christianized (1706), encouraged other slave-owners to do likewise, believing that Christianity “wonderfully Dulcifies, and Mollifies, and moderates the Circumstances” of bondage (Silverman, 264).
Onesimus was one of about a thousand persons of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony in the early 1700s, one-third of them in Boston. Many were indentured servants with rights comparable to those of white servants, though an increasing number of blacks–and blacks only–were classified as chattel and bound as slaves for life. Moreover, after 1700, white fears of burglary and insurrection by blacks and Indians prompted the Massachusetts assembly to impose tighter restrictions on the movements of people of color, whether slave, servant, or free. Cotton Mather was similarly concerned in 1711 about keeping a “strict Eye” on Onesimus, “especially with regard unto his Company,” and he also hoped that his slave would repent for “some Actions of a thievish aspect” (Mather, vol. 2, 139). Mather believed, moreover, that he could improve Onesimus’s behavior by employing the “Principles of Reason, agreeably offered unto him” and by teaching him to read, write, and learn the Christian catechism. (Mather, vol. 2, 222).
Read more here