During the Charleston smallpox epidemic of 1738, after one of his children died of the disease, he became one of the foremost champions of the controversial new practice of inoculation.
Physician, medical writer, poet. Kilpatrick (sometimes spelled “Killpatrick”) was born near Carrickfergus, Ireland, into a family of merchants. He attended the University of Edinburgh from 1708 to 1709 but did not take a degree. He returned to Ireland and gained some training in medicine but failed to prosper. Immigrating to Charleston around 1717, Kilpatrick practiced medicine and set up a pharmacy where he produced and sold drugs. In 1727 he married Elizabeth Hepworth, daughter of the secretary of the colony. Harboring ambitions to become a major poet, between 1717 and 1738 he wrote a five-canto narrative poem called The Sea Piece, which celebrated the mercantilist policies of the eighteenth-century British Empire.
It was Kilpatrick’s medical work, however, that won him widespread recognition. During the Charleston smallpox epidemic of 1738, after one of his children died of the disease, he became one of the foremost champions of the controversial new practice of inoculation. Kilpatrick wrote several articles for the South-Carolina Gazette defending inoculation against its opponents, who included the editor of the newspaper. From these articles he compiled An Essay on Inoculation Occasioned by the Smallpox Being Brought into South Carolina in the Year 1738, which he published in London in 1743. During the epidemic he came into conflict with another prominent Charleston physician and writer, Thomas Dale, over treatment of fever in smallpox. The two men exchanged bitter pamphlets defending their views before the controversy died away, apparently without resolution. The feud spilled over into politics. During early disputes between South Carolina and Georgia, Kilpatrick, whose outlook was imperial, supported the Georgians, while his rival Dale championed South Carolina.
In 1742 Kilpatrick left Charleston for London, changed his name to Kirkpatrick, and attained an M.D. degree. He was once credited with having revived inoculation in Britain after it had fallen into disuse. But it is now believed that his role in this development was less significant. Nevertheless, his Essay on Inoculation and his Analysis of Inoculation (1754), which was translated into German, French, and Dutch, brought him widespread recognition. He also achieved financial success as an inoculator of British aristocrats, the French royal family, and some wealthy Carolinians. He died in England in 1770.
Kirkpatrick, James. The Analysis of Inoculation. London: J. Millan, 1754.
–––. An Essay on Inoculation Occasioned by the Smallpox Being Brought into South Carolina in the Year 1738. London: J. Huggonsohn, 1743.
Shields, David S. “Dr. James Kirkpatrick, American Laureate of Mercantilism.” In The Meaning of South Carolina History: Essays in Honor of George C. Rogers, Jr., edited by
David R. Chesnutt and Clyde N. Wilson. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
Waring, Joseph I. “James Killpatrick and Smallpox Inoculation in Charlestown.” Annals of Medical History 10 (1938): 301–8.