Smallpox Inoculations in 1770s Were Risky, But Helped George Washington Win the WarHistorians in the News
tags: Revolutionary War, medical history
When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, America was fighting a war on two fronts: one for independence from the British, and a second for survival against smallpox. Because Washington knew the ravages of the disease firsthand, he understood that the smallpox virus, then an invisible enemy, could cripple his army and end the war before it began.
That’s why Washington eventually made the bold decision to inoculate all American troops who had never been sickened with smallpox at a time when inoculation was a crude and often deadly process. His gamble paid off. The measure staved off smallpox long enough to win a years-long fight with the British. In the process, Washington pulled off the first massive, state-funded immunization campaign in American history.
“Washington knew what smallpox was like and he knew how it could incapacitate his Army,” says Elizabeth Fenn, a professor of early American history of the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.
Washington also knew that his American-born soldiers were far more susceptible to the disease than the European enemy. That’s because smallpox was endemic in England, meaning that a high percentage of British troops had already contracted the disease as children and now carried lifelong immunity.
comments powered by Disqus
- Critical Race Theory Battle Invades School Boards — with Help from Conservative Groups
- The Rise and Fall of an American Tech Giant
- ‘Cynical and Illegitimate’: Higher-Ed Groups Assail Legislative Efforts to Restrict Teaching of Racism
- Congress Is Poised To Take Back Some Of Its War Powers From The President
- Racist Mural Puts Tate Galleries in a Bind
- Capitalism American-Style: A Financial History of the United States
- Event: History Matters with Annette Gordon-Reed, Historian & Author, “On Juneteenth” (Friday, June 18)
- The Freeing of the American Mind
- Lost Cause: 50 Years of the Drug War in Latin America
- Amazon’s Greatest Weapon Against Unions: Worker Turnover