“In 1736, I lost one of my sons, a handsome four-year-old boy, to ordinary smallpox. I have long bitterly regretted and still regret not having given it to him by inoculation. for the benefit of parents who omit this operation, assuming that they should never forgive themselves if a child has died under this operation; my example showing that regret can be the same anyway, and therefore the safest should be chosen. “— Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, published in 1791
Here is a modern day irony. Josh Mandel, who said he was running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, shared a disinformation Tweet last month stating “Founders allegedly tarred and feathered Dr. Fauci,” referring to the expert in infectious diseases Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor. to President Biden. On the contrary! It is more likely that they would have put Fauci to work to vaccinate George Washington’s Continental Army. No kidding. Here is “the rest of the story”.
The Continental Army was formed by the Second Continental Congress after the outbreak of the War of Independence. General George Washington was the army commander-in-chief throughout the war, and his hands were full. Its recruits were generally poorly trained, fed and equipped. They often lacked basics like shoes, even in winter. On the other hand, Washington was facing tens of thousands of British soldiers – the best trained and equipped in the world at the time – in addition to their local Indian allies and European mercenaries.
But Washington faced an even more dangerous enemy … disease. Among the continental regulars of the American Revolution, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease. Smallpox, the smallpox virus, was the most feared of all. It’s pretty ugly. According to the Mayo Clinic,
“After the incubation period, a sudden onset of flu-like signs and symptoms occurs … A few days later, red, flat spots first appear on your face, hands and forearms, then on your trunk. Within a day or two, many of these lesions turn into small blisters filled with clear fluid, which then turns into pus. The scabs start to form eight to nine days later and eventually fall off, leaving deep, pitted scars. Lesions also develop in the lining of your nose and mouth and quickly turn into sores that open.
Whore ! In addition, smallpox is extremely contagious. It can put a victim completely out of action for about a month, and in 20-30% of cases it has been fatal. It’s easy to see how, if left unchecked, he could defeat an entire army. In fact, he did. A smallpox epidemic struck the troops of the Continental Army which invaded Canada in 1775-1776. On the way to Quebec, about 30% of these soldiers fell ill with smallpox and died or had to give up. Ultimately, around 50% of the troops were infected. Their fighting ability was destroyed and the Americans had to retreat. Smallpox was a decisive factor that helped destroy the campaign to bring Canada into the revolution.
Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin, after reviewing the devastation wreaked by smallpox on the Canadian campaign, expressed fears the virus could be the military’s ultimate defeat. Washington didn’t need to be convinced. He had caught it as a teenager, suffered a lot and was knocked unconscious for a month. He knew everything from personal experience.
During the siege of Boston, Washington attempted to quarantine sick soldiers and civilians. Civilians with symptoms of smallpox have been detained in the town of Brookline, while military cases have been sent to a quarantine hospital. The strategy has sort of worked, but not well enough.
However, smallpox was endemic in the British Isles. As a result, many of them had caught it in their youth and were immune. In addition, the practice of “variolation”, a kind of vaccine that infected the individual with a less fatal form of the disease, was widespread throughout Europe. As a result, most British troops were immune to smallpox, giving them a huge advantage against much more vulnerable settlers. To make matters worse, there was an active anti-vax sentiment in the colonies which briefly led the Continental Congress to issue a proclamation in 1776 prohibiting army surgeons from inoculating.
Going beyond the ban on inoculation, on February 5, 1777, Washington wrote to John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress,
“Smallpox has made such a headache in every neighborhood that I cannot prevent it from spreading throughout the army in a natural way. So I decided, not only to inoculate all the troops now here, who didn’t have it, but to order the Docr. Shippen to inoculate the recruits as quickly as they get to Philadelphia.
In the 1770s, the main form of vaccination (“inoculation”) was known as “Variolation”, a disgusting, unpleasant and quite dangerous procedure. This involved the incision of the pustules of a smallpox victim followed by the insertion of the infected knife or a pus-laden piece of string under the skin of a healthy person. After about two weeks, the patient usually fell ill, often very ill, but the illness was less severe than with a naturally acquired infection. Still, the consequences were unpopular among the troops, and the death rate reportedly ranged from 0.5% to 10%.
To complicate matters, the extent of the unique mass vaccination of tens of thousands of soldiers has had to be carried out in complete secrecy. If the British found out that a large number of American soldiers were bedridden with smallpox, it could be the end of the war. “I need not mention the need for as much secrecy as the nature of the Subject allows,” Washington wrote, “there is no doubt that the Enemy will profit from the event as much as it can. Washington took a big risky bet. Here’s how it went:
“Weighing the risks, on February 5, 1777, Washington finally embarked on the unpopular policy of mass inoculation by writing to inform Congress of its plan. Throughout February, Washington, unprecedented for the operation it was about to undertake, secretly communicated to its commanders the order to supervise the massive inoculations of their troops in the model of [earlier pilot vaccinations of soldiers at] Morristown and Philadelphia. At least eleven hospitals had been built by the end of the year.
“Smallpox raged throughout the war … Yet the isolated infections that arose among mainland regulars during the southern campaign failed to neutralize a single regiment. With few surgeons, fewer medical supplies, and no experience, Washington carried out the first massive inoculation of an army at the height of a war that dramatically transformed the international system. Beating the British was impressive, but taking on the Variola simultaneously was a risky stroke of genius. — John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress
Now I have to get used to thinking of George Washington as my last public health hero. Makes me feel warm and hazy inside. So is the rather evanescent image of Washington and Fauci sitting there around the campfire drinking fine Colonial whiskey and congratulating themselves on another successful day vaccinating the soldiers. I thank Ohio candidate Josh Mandel for that little daydreaming.