General George Washington had a problem—besides his British enemy. This time it was a silent killer—a disease known as smallpox.
Washington was no stranger to the disease. While in Barbados in November, 1751, he’d suffered through a bout with the disease. After he recovered, he was immune to smallpox.
Variola—the smallpox virus—was brought in by British and German soldiers. The virus caused about 17% of deaths in the Continental Army. The disease also scared off potential recruits.
The practice of inoculations was widespread in Europe. Fearing contamination from the inoculation process, the Continental Congress prohibited army surgeons from doing them. Besides, soldiers would be too ill to fight for about a month after receiving a less-potent form of smallpox.
Yet soldiers were dying. Washington had to do something.
On January 6, 1777, General Washington ordered Dr. William Shippen, Jr. to inoculate all soldiers that came through Philadelphia. He wrote that he feared the disease more than “the Sword of the Enemy.”
Washington then ordered a mass inoculation on February 5, 1777. Though he did this in secret so the enemy wouldn’t know that his soldiers were incapacitated for a time, he did inform Congress of his decision.
Some reports state that deaths from smallpox dropped to 1% in the Continental Army. Isolated infections occurred in the southern campaign but were not the overwhelming problem as had occurred early in the war.
Washington’s decisive actions had saved the army.
-Sandra Merville Hart
“George Washington and the First Mass Military Inoculation,” The Library of Congress, 2018/03/11 https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/GW&smallpoxinoculation.html.
“Ten Facts about Washington and the Revolutionary War,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2018/03/11 http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/ten-facts-about-the-revolutionary-war/.
Thompson, Mary V. “Smallpox,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2018/03/11 http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/smallpox/.