When George Washington Inoculated His Troops From Smallpox

When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, America was waging a war on two fronts: one for the independence of the British and a second to survive against smallpox. Because Washington knew first-hand the ravages of the disease, he understood that the smallpox virus, then an invisible enemy, could paralyze its army and end the war before it started.

This is why Washington finally made the bold decision to inoculate all American troops who had never been sick with smallpox at a time when inoculation was a rude and often fatal process. His bet paid off. The measure avoided smallpox long enough to win a multi-year fight with the British. In doing so, Washington launched the first massive, state-funded vaccination campaign in American history.

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George Washington contracted smallpox in Barbados

In 1751, when Washington was 19 years old, he and his brother Lawrence went to Barbados in the hope that the warm air of the island would cure his brother who was sick with tuberculosis. Just a day after landing, the brothers had dinner at the home of a wealthy local merchant, Gedney Clarke. In his diary, young Washington expressed some reservations.

“We went there, myself with some reluctance, because smallpox was in his family,” wrote Washington.

Washington should have listened to its instinct. Two weeks later, after the smallpox virus finished its incubation period, Washington was down for the count.


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