At a time when anti-vaxxer hysteria is colliding in the headlines with public alarm at the possibility of a global Ebola epidemic, it is bracing to read historian Tom Shachtman’s account of another time in this nation’s history when Founding Father George Washington kept his head (public hysteria was not invented yesterday) and insisted that his army be inoculated against smallpox, thus saving the lives of thousands of soldiers and in the process indirectly safeguarding the young nation he was charged with defending. Here’s an excerpt, adapted by Shachtman for The Daily beast, from his latest book, Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment.
In early January 1777, General George Washington decided to take an action that would later be deemed his most important strategic decision of the war, even though it had nothing to do with the positioning of his troops, and to take it on the basis of his scientific understanding of the situation: he was going to order the inoculation of all Continental troops and recruits against smallpox. For an agonizing 18 months he had been wrestling with the decision, knowing it would mean having to counter the express orders of the Continental Congress and the decrees of the legislatures of half the rebelling colonies.
It would be a daring, possibly dangerous move because, a quarter-century before the introduction of the Jenner “cowpox” vaccine that would make immunity to smallpox widely available, smallpox was still the biggest killer of the age. It had been so for the American colonies since the earliest days of European settlement: once or twice every decade, smallpox would sweep through cities and countryside, causing between 10 and 20 percent of all deaths in the years it appeared.