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George Washington, the First Vaxxer

During the first year of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army lost more troops from smallpox than from battle. The disease swept through communities every few years, causing illness, death, and dread panic that made it difficult to organize Americans for war. Bringing soldiers together from far-flung villages was a dangerous prospect under those circumstances. General George Washington was immune to the disease, having survived it as a teenager, and he wrestled with the notion of conferring such immunity on his men. The procedure in those days was frightening, and few trusted it.

While Washington was acquainted with a technique for protecting people against smallpox, he would not then use it, partly because it was deemed illegal by the Continental Congress and colonial legislatures, and partly because many physicians believed the technique did more to spread the disease than to halt its progress.

The technique, called “variolation,” was a form of inoculation in which pus from an infected person was inserted under the skin of an uninfected one; that gave the inoculee a mild case of the disease and, after the passing of a period of high communicability, lifetime immunity. But although championed by such scientific heroes as Benjamin Franklin, and undergone willingly by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders, variolation was castigated as unsafe for the community because the patient had to be isolated for a week prior to the inoculation and two weeks or more after it. Congress had forbidden military doctors to administer it and forbidden army officers to take variolation or have their subordinates do it, on pain of being cashiered.

Washington lobbied to change the law, but got nowhere. As the winter of 1776-77 dragged on, the general realized that the only way to protect his men would be to take matters into his own hands. How like him. Read the story of what happened at The Daily Beast, in an excerpt from Tom Shachtman’s book Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment.

(Image credit: Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast)


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