How Smallpox Inoculations Helped Win the American Revolution

administration of smallpox vaccine
Image courtesy CDC

Vaccination can be a controversial topic, but America might never have won its independence without it. I was fascinated for two hours by the History Channel's presentation of America - The Story of Us, season 1, episode 2, "Revolution."  It was absolutely riveting and I can't wait to watch future episodes. You can watch it online at History.com.

Among the dozens of bits of information I never knew was the the fact that smallpox could have changed the results of the American Revolution.

During the winter at Valley Forge, George Washington decided to begin inoculating soldiers. Had he not taken that step, we could have lost the war, and our freedom. Think about that -- inoculation against a deadly disease meant we Americans could go on to win the war.

George Washington and Smallpox Vaccination at Valley Forge

I decided to look it up this morning to learn more. One aspect that really surprised me was the concept of inoculation / vaccination that early in history. As it turns out, the first vaccinations took place in America more than 50 years before that in Boston. They were arranged by a gentleman named Cotton Mather, who vaccinated two slaves and his own 6-year old son against smallpox. Each of them was mildly sick, but none died, nor did any of the three ever come down with smallpox again.

As George Washington watched so many of his soldiers die throughout that winter in Valley Forge, he remembered his wife describing what she had read about inoculation.

So he ordered his medics to create small wounds in healthy soldiers' arms, then rub some of the pus from the pox developed by infected soldiers into those wounds.This was the way it was done in those days.

Eventually, according to the History Channel program, that vaccination saved all but one in 50 soldiers, meaning the army could go on to fight.

Herd Immunity Protects the Troops

That was an early example of herd immunity. The healthier the population of soldiers in general, the less chance the other soldiers would get sick. By protecting the entire group, we Americans won our freedom. We can only imagine how the world would have been changed had George Washington not insisted his soldiers be vaccinated.

In the late 1700s, the idea of inoculation or vaccination was new and untested.  I'm sure people were as afraid of the vaccine as they were of the disease.

Vaccination Protects Everyone

Now fast forward to today. When it comes to viral threats, it seems like not much has changed.  Thank heavens enough of us are willing to be vaccinated so we protect the rest of our herd - our loved ones, friends and neighbors who refuse, argue or spend their lives figuring out why they should not.

By the way - if you were born before 1972, chances are excellent you've been inoculated against smallpox, too. That's that scar on your upper arm, near your shoulder.

 The World Health Organization declared smallpox to be eradicated in 1980.

If you're interested, learn more about smallpox and its eradication from our About.com Dermatology expert.

Continue Reading