January 6, 1777 – George Washington Orders All Forces Coming Through Philadelphia to Be Inoculated Against Smallpox

Disease, especially highly contagious smallpox, was as much of an enemy of the American Patriots as were the British. General George Washington had been exposed to the disease in 1751, when traveling with his older brother to Barbados. He contracted smallpox but survived, albeit with the telltale facial pockmarks. Thus he was immune but when the disease swept through the American colonies, he knew many would succumb to it.

As National Geographic Magazine reports, inoculation against smallpox dated back to ancient China, but it was considered a controversial procedure in colonial America. In Washington’s home state of Virginia, it was even illegal.

Benjamin Franklin, a devotee of science, was among colonists championing smallpox inoculation

At first he tried insisting on isolating those who caught the virus, but that aspiration did not play out in practice.

When American troops who marched on Quebec, their commanding officer, Major General John Thomas, failed to follow Washington’s strict protocols, and he and one-third to half of his 10,000 soldiers died from smallpox. The force was soundly defeated. On June 26, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail:

Our Misfortunes in Canada, are enough to melt an Heart of Stone. The Small Pox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians and Indians together. This was the Cause of our precipitate Retreat from Quebec, this the Cause of our Disgraces at the Cedars. — I dont mean that this was all. There has been Want, approaching to Famine, as well as Pestilence. And these Discouragements seem to have so disheartened our Officers, that none of them seem to Act with Prudence and Firmness.”

Washington decided stronger action was necessary. On this day in history, General Washington wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr. that he had “determined that the troops shall be inoculated.” He noted that while there may be some inconveniences and some disadvantages to the vaccine, “yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.”

He added:

You will spare no pains to carry them through the disorder with the utmost expedition, and to have them cleansed from the infection when recovered, that they may proceed to Camp with as little injury as possible to the Country through which they pass.”

You can access the text of the letter here.

General George Washington

By the end of 1777, some 40,000 soldiers had been vaccinated.

As the Library of Congress observes,

American independence must be partially attributed to a strategy for which history has given the infamous general little credit: his controversial medical actions. Traditionally, the Battle of Saratoga is credited with tipping the revolutionary scales. Yet the health of the Continental regulars involved in battle was a product of the ambitious initiative Washington began earlier that year at Morristown, close on the heels of the victorious Battle of Princeton. Among the Continental regulars in the American Revolution, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease, and Variola the small pox virus was the most vicious of them all.”

Vaccination is indeed an American tradition, or was….

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