Smallpox, The Continental Army, And General Washington

Fritz Hirschfeld
This thesis traces the events that led to the successful use of the technique of inoculation to prevent the outbreak of smallpox epidemics in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. It also provides an insight into the leadership role played by General Washington in bringing about the policy of inoculation for the soldiers in his command. Ever since the smallpox virus was introduced to the North American continent by the European explorers and settlers in the colonial period, there
more » ... d been controversy over the desirability of inoculation as a means of controlling the disease. It was known, of course, that if a victim recovered from an attack of smallpox he or she was assured of lifetime immunity. The controversy developed over the risks involved in deliberately spreading the infection. Since most people were afraid of contracting the deadly smallpox in any form, the procedure of inoculation remained under a cloud. In many of the colonies, inoculation was officially banned. The Revolutionary War helped bring the inoculation controversy to a head. Smallpox epidemics debilitated the ranks of the Continental Army in the Canadian campaign of 1775-6. As a result, General Washington made the calculated decision to inoculate all of his troops despite the risk. Fortunately, his judgment proved sound. From 1777 onwards, as a result of a mandatory program of inoculation, the smallpox virus was virtually eradicated as a threat to the health of the Continental Army. v SMALLPOX, THE CONTINENTAL ARMY, AND GENERAL WASHINGTON 3 blindness, loss of hair, and other crippling and unsightly disabilities. Recovering from an attack of smallpox did have one major beneficial side-effect: the individual was assured of lifetime immunity. When an epidemic of smallpox had run its course, it would generally subside as quickly as it had appeared leaving a trail of death and mutilation in its wake. There was no telling if and when it would return. The fatality rate could range from 10% to over 90%. Smallpox, introduced by the Spanish into South and Central America and by the French into Canada in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was considered to have been the chief killer disease responsible for wiping out entire native Indian societies in these regions. The same catastrophe took its toll of the local Indian tribes when the English established their colonies along the Atlantic seaboard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The European settlers, many of whom over the years had developed immunity to smallpox, fared somewhat better. Nevertheless, they still suffered grievous losses from the periodic visitations of smallpox epidemics. "In 1736 Dr. Benjamin Gale wrote to Dr. John Huxham, the English physician, that one in every seven or eight infected with smallpox in America died. The study made by William Douglass showed a death rate of one out of every seven cases in the Boston epidemic of 1721. The latter outbreak was one of the worst in colonial history."^ At the
doi:10.21220/s2-ecgj-sq04 fatcat:tn4h7qd2fncmfgshv4alvnvfe4