Viruses like COVID-19, N1H1, measles and polio have brought sickness to the population of the United States for centuries. In the 1770s, it was variola or, as you may know it, smallpox.
The smallpox epidemic hit the colonies in 1775, just as Washington was taking command of the Continental Army and laying siege to Boston. At the time the city was heavily infected. The mortality rate for the disease was around 30%.
At first, the general practiced what we might call social distancing. He isolated his camps from the general population and restricted access. Anyone wishing to enter the camps was checked to make sure they were free of the disease. When Boston fell, he sent in only troops who had had smallpox and recovered to garrison the town. Just as with COVID-19, once you have smallpox you have immunity to the virus, which is why Washington chose those men.
A side note: Washington himself was immune to smallpox, having contracted the disease in his youth.
Then came word from Canada. A section of the Continental Army sent there to drive out the British had been ravaged by smallpox, leaving it incapable of carrying on.
John Adams said, “Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt a heart of stone. The Smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together.”
Then came word that the same thing was happening in the southern colonies. In fact, for the war, roughly 90% of deaths were caused by disease.
Washington decided to take a massive gamble. He ordered Dr. William Shippen Jr. to inoculate the entire Continental Army.
“Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our Army,” Washington said, “I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated. This expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust, in its consequences will have the most happy effects.”
It would be the first mass inoculation of an army during a war.
What made this such a big gamble was that inoculation was still a new thing. It had only been a few years earlier when a smallpox outbreak started in England that it had been observed that milkmaids who had been exposed to cowpox seemed to be immune to smallpox.
Adding to the gamble, there was such a fear of the process used to immunize people at this time, called variolation, it was outlawed by the Continental Congress. In order to vaccinate his army, Washington would have to break the law.
Dr. Peter Kennedy, a physician in the 1700s, described how he did a variolation in his essay “External Remedies Wherein it is Considered, Whether all the Curable Distempers Incident to Human Bodies, may not be Cured by Outward Means.”
Dr. Kennedy wrote, “… scarred the wrists, legs and forehead of the patient, placed a fresh and kindly pock in each incision and bound it there for eight or ten days, after this time the patient was credibly informed. The patient would then develop a mild case [of smallpox], recover, and thereafter be immune.”
A “fresh and kindly pock” was an eruption or blister on the body of an infected cow. In Washington’s time they were beginning to take pocks from other smallpox victims. You can see a good demonstration of variolation in the mini-series “John Adams.”
The process would have to be done in secret because, as Dr. Kennedy pointed out, variolation would cause the soldiers to contract a milder case of smallpox. If the British knew, they would attack the much weakened Continental Army.
Washington’s gamble paid off big. The Continental Army developed immunity and defeated smallpox, and then went on to defeat the British.
In fact so great was Washington’s success that Congress repealed the law banning variolation and citizens were able to get vaccinated as well.
The process of vaccination would continue to improve through the years until smallpox was completely eliminated from the world. The last known case of naturally acquired smallpox was in Somalia, Africa, on Oct. 12, 1977. On May 8, 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly officially declared the world free of the disease.
Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]