How Smallpox Inoculations Helped Win the American Revolution

Lessons to Apply to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Vaccination can be a controversial topic to some, but America might never have won its independence without it. The story of George Washington inoculating his troops against smallpox illustrates why it is important to immunize enough people to keep diseases from spreading and altering the very course of history.

Close-up of a gloved healthcare worker with an inoculation vaccine
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Smallpox at Valley Forge

History has shown us how the spread of disease could have altered the birth of a nation.

During the winter at Valley Forge in 1776, George Washington decided to begin inoculating soldiers against smallpox, a disease he had experienced as a teenager in 1751 while visiting the island of Barbados.

Washington's decision to inoculate his troops—using a process called variolation in which pus from an infected person is introduced into the body of an uninfected person—provided them protection from the growing epidemic and enabled them to fight to British forces and eventually win the war.

Washington's revolutionary comrade, John Adams, was not so lucky. Unlike the troops at Valley Forge, Adams' troops had been forced to retreat from Quebec when half had fallen ill with smallpox.

In the end, all but 50 of Washington's troops survived the smallpox epidemic. Had Adams taken the same actions and inoculated his troops, historians believed that Quebec could very well have become a part of the United States.

The Birth of Vaccination

The practice of variolation was not a new concept; it had, in fact, been used for centuries all the way back to the Ottoman Empire.

According to historians, the first widespread variolations in American colonies took place more than 50 years before Valley Forge when famed pamphleteer Cotton Mather introduced the practice during the smallpox epidemic of 1721. It was something he had reportedly learned from his slave, Onesimus, who had learned it in Africa.

At the same time back in England, aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was imploring the government to take the same action to protect British children from the smallpox epidemic in that country. She had witnessed the practice of variolation during a tour of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and even had it applied to her own 3-year-old son back at home.

Unlike Washington's response, however, Lady Montagu's actions were greeted by consternation and condemnation by many in the British public, leading some to form organizations specifically to fight the practice of inoculation. It was arguably one of the first organized examples of the anti-vaccination movement playing out today.

Twenty years after Washington inoculated his troops in Valley Forge, British scientist Edward Jenner created the smallpox vaccine in 1796—the very first vaccine ever invented.

Lessons Learned

In the late 1700s, the idea of vaccination was new and untested, and a great many people were as afraid of the vaccine as they were of the disease.

Today, the body of scientific evidence has shown that vaccines work, eliminating diseases in the United States that once killed millions around the world, such as like diphtheria. Still, many people decline vaccination, believing conspiracy theories or unsupported claims of health risks (including that the MMR vaccine causes autism or that the COVID-19 vaccine changes a person's DNA).

As a result of the growing anti-vaccine movement, a disease like measles—which was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000—has begun to re-emerge in local and regional outbreaks throughout the country.

Should the same occur with COVID-19 vaccinations, there is a risk that the U.S. population—and the world population—will not achieve the herd immunity needed to effectively bring the pandemic under control.

A Word From Verywell

Despite claims to the contrary, the benefits of vaccinations vastly outweigh the potential risks. Those recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) are considered essential to protecting children and adults from diseases that can cause serious harm or re-emerge if people forego vaccinations.

If uncertain what vaccines you or your child needs, speak to your doctor. You should also speak with a doctor if you are falling behind on your child's immunization schedule as additional doses or different vaccines may be needed.

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