Health & Medicine

Why 21st-century anti-vaxxers have nothing on their 18th-century counterparts

We all know that George Washington is America’s founding father. But did you know he was also the founding father of mass immunization in America?

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If Washington had lost the Revolutionary War, there would be no Washington Monument, no Washington, DC, — and, by the way, no United States of America. And he very easily could have lost — but not so much because of British troops.

Smallpox was the other enemy Washington was seriously worried about. The disease can kill as many as half the people who catch it, especially if it hits a population like the one in colonial America, where smallpox was comparatively rare and few people were immune.

Smallpox also spreads mainly through close human contact. So, with all of that in mind, gathering a big number of 18th-century Americans together — say, in an army of some kind — was just asking for trouble.

One way to avoid that trouble was “inoculation,” a kind of a precursor to our modern day vaccines.

So what exactly is inoculation? The idea was that you deliberately give someone smallpox.

Yup.

Step one, take infectious goop from someone with a mild case of the disease; step two, squish this goop into a cut in the skin, usually on the arm; step three, cross your fingers and hope for the best. 

If you do it right, the survivor gets immunity against smallpox. But there are risks. When inoculation was tried in Boston during a smallpox outbreak in 1721, about two percent of inoculees died. That’s much better than the 14 percent death rate among those who had caught smallpox naturally, but there was still a lot of opposition. 

The anti-vaxxers of the 18th century firebombed the home of the man leading the immunization effort in Boston. They accused him of spreading the disease and defying the will of God — even though he was a minister.

By the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775, though doctors had gotten a lot better at inoculation, the procedure was still illegal in some colonies. Even George Washington initially thought it was a bad idea to inoculate his soldiers: The process took men off the lines for weeks at a time.

But then, disaster struck. Smallpox broke out among soldiers occupying Canada in 1776, logistics were a mess. Hundreds of men, many already starving thanks to poor supply lines, died of the disease. The survivors fled, Canada was lost and Washington learned his lesson.

He wrote to his medical chief that smallpox was something “we should have more dread of than the Sword of the Enemy.” He began a comprehensive campaign to inoculate every person in the Continental Army. And while had to force some of them, inoculation helped the Americans stay the course and win the war.

And perhaps that’s one reason why there’s a picture of George Washington on the dollar bill, and not, say, Her Majesty the Queen.

Chris Woolf covers the history beat at PRI's The World. His previous ''short histories'' include looks at death and Liberia.