In response to the viral pandemic, the military ordered all service personnel to receive a controversial vaccine against the virus. The edict also prohibits military families and other civilians who live in high virus transmission areas from entering military bases. Furthermore, military personnel suspected of having contact with infected people are ordered to quarantine. All this was met with stiff opposition from many troops, from certain States, and even from Congress.
COVID-19 in 2021?
No. Smallpox in 1777.
In 1777 facing an outbreak of smallpox that threatened his troops’ combat readiness, General George Washington ordered that all troops in the Continental Army be inoculated against smallpox. At the time, vaccination against smallpox was quite rare and not widely known. It involved a procedure known as variolation, where a small amount of pus from an active smallpox blister was scratched into the arm of a recipient. The low dose of the smallpox “pathogen” (the world did not know about viruses at that time) would, hopefully, just make the person sick and not kill him while conferring resistance to future smallpox exposure. Variolation was quite controversial and was even prohibited in Washington’s home state, Virginia. Variolation, in fact, did kill a relative of the King George of England. The relative was given too high a dose of pus and developed a full blown case of lethal smallpox. Many others also died from the procedure, hence the controversy.
When the revolution began, the Continentals faced not only the British military, but also the highly contagious smallpox virus carried by European troops coming from England and Germany. Europeans were well exposed to the disease where many survived and had protective immunity. Smallpox was relatively unknown in the Colonies so the colonists did not have that level of protection, and part of Washington’s genius was to realize that. As European troops arrived in Boston and New York, the virus spread through those cities and as the troops deployed, the disease threatened to run rampant through the colonies, potentially decimating the country and the Continental Army.
Washington, who survived smallpox as a child, was somewhat familiar with the rare practice of variolation, which was brought to England from Constantinople in 1721 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. By ordering it for his troops, despite stiff opposition from the Continental Congress, he acted as perhaps the country’s first public health advocate and averted a potentially disastrous epidemic among his troops.
After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Continental Army encamped across the Charles River from Boston, which was stricken with smallpox from the arriving British soldiers. Washington prohibited anyone from Boston from entering his camps. He also swiftly quarantined anyone suspected of being infected, which was perhaps the first example of contact tracing. Washington’s actions were very heady stuff for the pre-epidemiology, pre-infectious disease era.
Washington did not immediately order variolation since he knew that the significant side effects of the procedure would temporarily incapacitate the troops who would take a few weeks to recover. Instead, he waited until the fighting subsided and both sides took a breather. Then he ordered the vaccinations against the wishes of the Continental Congress which initially forbade army surgeons from performing variolation. Washington first ordered that all new recruits undergo the procedure believing that they would be healthy by the time they were battle ready and when the war was battle was ready for them.
Washington’s prescience was soon proven. Several thousand Continental troops marched on Quebec under Major General John Thomas who refused to follow Washington’s vaccination orders. He, and one-third of his 10,000 soldiers died from the pox and the force was soundly defeated.
Washington then moved to inoculate his main army and by 1777, 40,000 soldiers had been vaccinated in defiance of Congress. Infection rates in the Continental Army dropped from 20% to 1% and, after seeing these results, lawmakers soon repealed bans on variolation across the Colonies. One historian claims that Washington’s decision to inoculate his troops “…was the most important strategic decision of his military career.”
That radical decision could be a big reason why we do not today have the Union Jack flying over these 50 colonies. I find all of this to be an amazing, but little known fact about the American Revolution. Variolation might have been as important to the Colonists’ victory as was the French Navy finally showing up at Yorktown.
Immunology rocks as much as French naval cannons!
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