Cotton Mather was one of the most influential Puritan clergymen and perhaps the most controversial public figure of his day. The oldest of twelve children, Cotton Mather was born in Boston in 1663. Bostonians of the day likely saw him as the heir apparent to a colonial dynasty: Mather’s grandfathers were the illustrious Puritans Richard Mather and John Cotton, both of whom had been instrumental in the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his father was Increase Mather, a Boston minister and the first president of Harvard College. Tutored in classical languages and Hebrew as a child, Mather entered Harvard at the age of 12. His youth and his family’s prominence made him an easy mark for older students, and their teasing left him miserable. In addition, a stutter made the ministry seem out of reach. In his early days at Harvard, then, Mather began to study science and medicine.
As the young man’s stutter disappeared over time, he returned to study for the ministry, although he remained actively interested in medical and other science throughout his life. Perhaps this fascination was reinforced by his misfortune in marriage and family life: His first two wives died at relatively young ages, and his third wife became insane; only two of his fifteen children lived longer than Mather himself.