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In honor of George Washington’s actual birthday, I wanted to feature one of his extraordinary actions during the Revolutionary War.
George Washington didn’t need any advice about the deadliness of smallpox. When he was 19 years old when he accompanied his brother ill with tuberculosis to Barbados. They accepted an invitation to dine with a family, some of whom had recovered from smallpox. Although the incubation period was supposedly past, Washington came down with the deadly disease and survived. But the memory of the illness stayed with him.
When Boston had an outbreak of the disease during the Revolutionary War and word of the spread of the disease reached him, Washington was extremely concerned about his troops. At first, he only had recruits inoculated; the matter from the pustules was placed under the skin of someone who had never had the disease, which resulted in a milder version of the disease. (Anyone who had previously been infected was immune.) Washington was concerned about alerting the British if he decided to inoculate all his troops, knowing the inoculations might temporarily weaken them. He realized then that he would need to conduct mandatory inoculation in secrecy :
Though it would protect soldiers in the long run and decrease fear of enlistment, it would also incapacitate large numbers for weeks at a time, rendering the Continentals vulnerable to assault. Ultimately, however, it became clear that the spread of smallpox through the ranks presented a graver threat to the army — and would kill more individuals — than the Redcoats. Recruits were quarantined in camps and inoculated before being sent out to fight.
The results of the mass inoculation were remarkable. The Continental Army’s infection rate dropped from 17% to 1%; the Continental Congress, which had outlawed mass inoculation, legalized it as a result.
‘Due in large part to [Washington’s] perseverance and dedication to controlling smallpox, the Continental Army was able to survive and develop into an effective and reliable fighting force, unhampered by recurring epidemics of that disease.’
If Washington hadn’t defied the Continental Congress and acted in secret, we might have ended up under the thumb of the British to this day.
Who knows?Published in