Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Washington, the Revolutionary War and Smallpox

 

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?

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  1. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Suzy,

    More evidence of the incredibly resourceful George Washington. He beat the odds and the British to give us a country. Then showing the true spirit of democracy, he stepped down after two terms as President. This man was a blessing.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #1
    • February 22, 2020, at 5:48 PM PST
    • 11 likes
  2. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    James Gawron (View Comment):

    Suzy,

    More evidence of the incredibly resourceful George Washington. He beat the odds and the British to give us a country. Then showing the true spirit of democracy, he stepped down after two terms as President. This man was a blessing.

    Regards,

    Jim

    I could write volumes on him (especially after reading two biographies on him). I especially love the times he was in battle, and the bullets flew all around him. I think he had a horse shot out under him but not a single wound for him. He was a blessing, as you say.

    • #2
    • February 22, 2020, at 5:57 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  3. Matt Bartle Member
    Matt Bartle Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    How can it be that I never before heard that Washington survived smallpox?? I guess that goes to show how many other extraordinary things he did that this one isn’t even near the top of the list.

    • #3
    • February 22, 2020, at 6:23 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  4. Tree Rat Member

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    How can it be that I never before heard that Washington survived smallpox?? I guess that goes to show how many other extraordinary things he did that this one isn’t even near the top of the list.

    I think I recall reading that smallpox may have left him sterile, thus no offspring. Don’t remember where I read that, nor if it is accurate.

    • #4
    • February 22, 2020, at 7:29 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A story that I’ve been hearing as long as I can remember is that when my parents took me through the National Portrait Gallery when I was two years old, my dad asked me if I knew who this was a painting of.

    “That is George Washington, the greatest man in the world!” I shouted, to the amusement of several other visitors.

    • #5
    • February 22, 2020, at 8:17 PM PST
    • 15 likes
  6. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Richard Finlay (View Comment):

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):

    How can it be that I never before heard that Washington survived smallpox?? I guess that goes to show how many other extraordinary things he did that this one isn’t even near the top of the list.

    I think I recall reading that smallpox may have left him sterile, thus no offspring. Don’t remember where I read that, nor if it is accurate.

    There has been speculation, but never proven.

    • #6
    • February 23, 2020, at 6:42 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  7. Vectorman Thatcher

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):
    How can it be that I never before heard that Washington survived smallpox?? I guess that goes to show how many other extraordinary things he did that this one isn’t even near the top of the list.

    I’ve heard that he was very self-conscience of his smallpox scars. In addition, he had lost all but one of his teeth, and thus the puffier lower jaw in his portraits.

    • #7
    • February 23, 2020, at 9:07 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):
    How can it be that I never before heard that Washington survived smallpox?? I guess that goes to show how many other extraordinary things he did that this one isn’t even near the top of the list.

    I’ve heard that he was very self-conscience of his smallpox scars. In addition, he had lost all but one of his teeth, and thus the puffier lower jaw in his portraits.

    And of course, he did not have wooden teeth (as your link indicates)! He offered to buy the teeth of his slaves (which I assumed they weren’t required to sell to him) to surgically place in his own mouth and also had teeth of other animals and materials. It must have been so painful for him.

    • #8
    • February 23, 2020, at 9:13 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  9. Kay of MT Member

    They may be confusing Smallpox with Chickenpox or Mumps. Mumps was the great killer in the Civil War and and if they survived, sterility was more common, also with Chicken Pox.

     

    • #9
    • February 23, 2020, at 9:14 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  10. JustmeinAZ Member

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Matt Bartle (View Comment):
    How can it be that I never before heard that Washington survived smallpox?? I guess that goes to show how many other extraordinary things he did that this one isn’t even near the top of the list.

    I’ve heard that he was very self-conscience of his smallpox scars. In addition, he had lost all but one of his teeth, and thus the puffier lower jaw in his portraits.

    In the recent History channel mini-series on Washington they brought up the issue of Washington’s slave ownership, but not as much as they might have. Anyway they addressed his lack of teeth and the fact that he had a set of dentures made of a combination of real human teeth and other animal teeth so that he could look as natural as possible in public. They said that some of the human teeth came from slaves, conceding that he paid them for these teeth.

     

    • #10
    • February 23, 2020, at 9:20 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  11. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    And I have to hand it to Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series. She really does her homework, and when she has her characters actually meet George Washington, her description of him is very accurate.

    • #11
    • February 23, 2020, at 3:18 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing) Coolidge
    Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing) Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    They may be confusing Smallpox with Chickenpox or Mumps. Mumps was the great killer in the Civil War and and if they survived, sterility was more common, also with Chicken Pox.

     

    They were vividly aware of the distinctions in the day, and smallpox was by far the deadliest and scariest. Biographies of the period tend to include live-virus inoculation attempts, including those of the John Adams family and of Thomas Jefferson, who also had his personal slave Jupiter inoculated. Jupiter was Jefferson’s body slave from his youth and they were very close.

    • #12
    • February 23, 2020, at 5:11 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  13. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    In the context of both Washington’s birthday and the latest international health threat, @susanquinn reminds us of a tough public health decision by then General Washington.

    This timely post is part of our Group Writing Series under the February 2020 Group Writing Theme: “Advice.” Thanks to all who signed up, filling the month with advice of all sorts. Next month’s theme is “Working;” stop by and sign up now.

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #13
    • February 23, 2020, at 10:43 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  14. Old Bathos Moderator

    Good thing Jennie McCarthy was not around to prevent vaccinations back then. We would have lost the war.

    • #14
    • February 24, 2020, at 5:59 AM PST
    • 4 likes
  15. Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing) Coolidge
    Sisyphus (hears Xi laughing) Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Good thing Jennie McCarthy was not around to prevent vaccinations back then. We would have lost the war.

    I’m thinking she would have been on the other side.

    • #15
    • February 24, 2020, at 5:18 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  16. The Reticulator Member

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Good thing Jennie McCarthy was not around to prevent vaccinations back then. We would have lost the war.

    I’m thinking she would have been on the other side.

    Sigh. Another name I need to look up. Is there no end to them? 

    • #16
    • February 24, 2020, at 6:20 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  17. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):

    Good thing Jennie McCarthy was not around to prevent vaccinations back then. We would have lost the war.

    I’m thinking she would have been on the other side.

    Sigh. Another name I need to look up. Is there no end to them?

    Jenny was a leader of the campaign against vaccinations, because she thought they caused autism .

    • #17
    • February 25, 2020, at 3:48 AM PST
    • 2 likes