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Friday, April 3, 2009

Washington Orders Inoculation

One of the most stirring scenes in HBO's miniseries, John Adams is the inoculation of Abigail and her children. Instead of today's modern inoculation methods (which still cause many to squirm and even pass out), colonial inoculation was much more barbaric. The process involved the cutting of the flesh accompanied by the introduction of the smallpox virus into both the blood and flesh of the patient. As can be imagined, many within the colonial community saw inoculation as an insane method of treatment. There were even debates amongst medical practitioners as to its effectiveness.

What most people don't know when it comes to inoculation during this time period is that General George Washington actually ordered the soldiers of the Continental Army to be inoculated. Washington was a strong supporter of inoculation, believing that the medical procedure would greatly reduce the chances of infection. Though the procedure had many skeptics, Washington firmly believed that the benefits of inoculation far outweighed the risks. In fact, Washington became so paranoid about the spread of smallpox during the early years of the war that he literally became obsessed with inoculating the troops. During the siege of Boston, Washington's concern about the spread of smallpox caused him to issue an order stating that no soldier could enter the city unless he had been infected with smallpox in the past.

Washington's experience with smallpox during his youth was probably the primary determining factor in shaping his opinion on inoculation. During a trip to the Caribbean, Washington was infected with smallpox. In fact, Washington carried a few pockmark scars on his face to remind him of this nearly fatal encounter. His experiences during the French & Indian War had also confirmed to Washington that inoculation was essential for any army. During the war, Washington witnessed several British raids that were unsuccessful, due to the depleted manpower of the British Army.

In his highly acclaimed biography His Excellency, historian Joseph Ellis makes the claim that Washington's decision to inoculate the Continental Army was one of his finest moments:

Washington understood the ravaging implications of a smallpox epidemic within the congested conditions of the encampment, and he regularly quarantined patients that were infected with the virus...And although many educated Americans opposed inoculation, believing that it actually spread the disease, Washington strongly supported it...When historians debate Washington's most consequential decisions as commander in chief, they are almost always arguing about specific battles. A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career.
In today's modern world we enjoy the benefits of understanding the scientific advancements of modern medicine. In today's world the decision to be inoculated is a "no-brainer" of sorts because of our understanding of infectious diseases. For colonial Americans, however, this was very much a roll of the dice. Fortunately for the Continental Army, Washington was brave enough to take the gamble.

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