Small pox and the American Revolution

When I think about deaths during the American Revolution, I usually think about those who fell in battle or the poor unfortunate soul who froze to death or died of starvation during the winter at Valley Forge.

But an even greater threat to life and limb than being felled by a musket ball or gangrenous feet was the scourge of Variola Major – or small pox. According to at least one researcher, small pox killed an estimated 130,000 people during the revolution. The estimated 8,000 soldiers that died in combat pales in comparison. (An estimated 17,000 more soldiers died from causes other than combat. A good portion of those were in British prisons, but that’s a subject for another day.)

And it seems threats of bio-terrorism aren’t entirely new either. Although unproven as far as I can tell, the British were suspected of spreading the infection behind American lines. I don't know that this highly contagious disease needed their assistance, and whether true or not, Washington faced a serious threat to his forces. Luckily, he had already recovered from a case of small pox—he recovered from a lot of things in his relatively short life—so he was immune. But, quarantining victims didn't seem to be enough to stop the spread of the disease.

That's when he ordered a radical procedure called variolation (named after the disease, obviously) where an incision was made in the skin and a small amount of diseased fluid from someone with smallpox was inserted. The patient contracted a less virulent form of the disease (usually) and thereby developed immunity. If you watched A&E's John Adams series, you saw a reenactment of this nasty-looking procedure. Thankfully, in the late 1790s, Edward Jenner, and English physician, discovered that you could inoculate against smallpox using material the far less deadly cowpox lesion, but not in time to help Washington.

This procedure was not without controversy. In fact, the Continental Congress had initially forbidden its use in the military, and many of the colonies forbade it as well. Gradually, however, those bans were lifted and such notables as Franklin, Jefferson, Adams as well as Martha Washington underwent the procedure. Washington ultimately ordered the inoculation of his troops in secret even before Congress lifted the ban, but the propitious drop in the number of cases probably did much to bolster his defense. (Can't you just imagine a few of the men in Congress saying 'Yeah, we were with him the whole time.'?)

Small pox has never been a major player in any of the books, I've written, but it has made made a cameo appearance from time to time. It's one of those realities to 18th century life that would be hard to ignore. Plus, it makes one really stop and think about how lucky we are to live in an age when small pox has been all but wiped out.

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