Smallpox, Variolation and George Washington

In the late summer of 1775, two U.S. forces entered Canada. One, led by General Richard Montgomery came north from what is now Vermont and captured Montreal and then headed up the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. There, Montgomery’s force was joined by one led by Benedict Arnold that traveled north up the Kenebec River and portaged to the Chaudière River to travel downstream to the St. Lawrence and Quebec City.

The combined force besieged Quebec City and had an excellent chance of taking it. Had they done so, there is a high probability that French Canadians would have joined the revolution bringing to  our side.

However, Mother Nature and winter arrived. The besieging force, encamped in primitive conditions was hit with a smallpox epidemic. Of the three thousand men, half died of smallpox and they were forced to withdraw.

Farther south, George Washington, now commander of the Continental Army was well aware of the dangers of smallpox. On a visit to Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence in 1751, Washington contracted smallpox also known as variola.

By the end of the eight years of war (1775 – 1783), 6.500 Americans would die on the battlefield, another 6,100 were wounded yet 17,000 men in Washington’s army would die of disease, many of which died of smallpox before 1777. And, smallpox did not just affect the Continental Army. In 1777, records show that approximately 100,000 died of the disease in North America. The numbers are startling, but don’t tell the whole story.

Having survived a bout with the deadly disease made Washington aware of the effect smallpox could have on an army. Faced with a smallpox epidemic in the winter of 1777, Washington decided to inoculate his army. In those days, this was no mean feat. By the time the war started, the technique known as variolation had already been proven effective in England.

The procedure was simple. Scabs from smallpox victims were dried, powdered and a small amount rubbed into a minor scratch in the skin. The result was that the individual would have a mild fever, even a few smallpox sores. After a few days, the individual recovered and was immune from the disease.

Purity/quality of the amount ingested varied and the mortality rate was, by 2020 standards, at between .5% and 2.0%. Was it perfect, no, but if one was “variolated,” there was a 98% chance one would not contract smallpox. Given the mortality rate of 30-35% for those who contracted the disease, the risk was deemed acceptable.

New recruits into the Continental Army were inoculated immediately after induction. It took until 1778 to get the army fully vaccinated and deaths from smallpox in the Continental Army dropped dramatically.

To vaccinate the army was one of the most important decisions Washington made during the war. Had he not done so, the Continental Army may have been decimated by smallpox. Having lost the war, we would now be British citizens. What is also significant about Washington’s decision is that this inoculation program was the first of its kind in the world.

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