Washington's Smallpox Defense
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washington's smallpox defense

During a visit to Barbados in seventeen fifty-one, George Washington contracted smallpox. He wouldn't know the role his recovery would play in the American Revolution

In the years leading up to the war, smallpox broke out in American coastal cities and killed a third of the infected. By the time Washington was in command of American troops, he was well aware of the threat smallpox posed to his men. He had a plan to quarantine the infected in a special hospital.

He needed a plan. The British used an outbreak in Boston, an area they controlled, to send out infected people hoping to spread the virus to the Continental Army. Washington responded by banning Boston refugees from approaching the American Camps. When the British left Boston the following year, Washington sent in one thousand smallpox immune troops to occupy the city.

Inoculation against smallpox was known as far back as ancient China but in eighteenth century North America it was highly controversial. Still, Washington required that all army recruits who had never been infected to be inoculated. They used a procedure called variolation which was lancing the pustule from a smallpox victim and inserting the blade under the skin of a healthy person. They would develop a mild case of smallpox in about two weeks.

After the mass vaccination of forty thousand soldiers all but fifty survived the epidemics. I'd say that's a high survival rate and no doubt played a role in how the Revolution turned out.

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