Thursday, September 17, 2009

George Washington and Smallpox

My game from last week was a picture of George Washington's stepson, John Parke Custis, Jacky, who served in the Revolutionary War and died in October 1781 from camp fever.

One thing I found while looking for Jacky online was this interesting piece that talks about Washington and the smallpox vaccine. Smallpox innoculations were still new in Europe and the US in Washington's time and still feared by many, but Washington insisted that his stepson, Jacky, be innoculated when considering travel to Europe. He then had his family and even his slave innoculated after this went well:
In 1770, Washington was approached by the Reverend Jonathan Boucher, his stepson's teacher, with the proposal that the teenager study and travel in Europe. Washington replied with some reservations, but felt it would be prudent to have the boy inoculated against smallpox, whether he traveled overseas or not. Washington's belief in the efficacy of this practice may have been derived from a relative, his second cousin, John Smith, who had set up a smallpox inoculation hospital in Virginia in 1767 and continued to practice the technique until his death in 1771. Washington's stepson, John Parke Custis, underwent inoculation in the spring of 1771 in Baltimore, resulting in a mild case of the disease with only eight pustules on his body. Only after the procedure was successful and the young man restored to health was his very protective mother informed. Other members of the family later followed young Custis's example: Martha Washington was inoculated in the spring of 1776, while the families of Washington's brothers, John Augustine and Samuel, underwent the procedure the following year. Mount Vernon slaves were inoculated as well. Washington was so convinced of the usefulness of inoculation that he confided to one of his brothers in 1777 that:
"Surely that Impolitic Act, restraining Inoculation in Virginia, can never be continued. If I was a Member of that Assembly, I would rather move for a Law to compell the Masters of Families to inoculate every Child born within a certain limitted time under severe Penalties."

Washington eventually set it up so that soldiers coming into the army were innoculated first:
While Washington certainly believed in the efficacy of inoculation, in May of 1776 he ordered that no one in his army be inoculated; violations of this order would result in severe punishment. The summer campaigns were about to begin, and Washington could not afford to have a large number of his men incapacitated for a month and vulnerable to attack by the British. Washington eventually instituted a system by which new recruits would be inoculated with smallpox immediately upon enlistment. In this way, they would contract the milder form of the disease at the same time they were being outfitted with uniforms and weapons. They would, consequently, be completely well, and supplied, by the time they marched off to join the main part of the army or, as Washington expressed it, "in a short space of time we shall have an Army not subject to this, the greatest of all calamities that can befall it, when taken in the natural way."


Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

The book, "The Great Influenza" discusses, among other things, the development of medical science in the U.S. and in Europe. Absent from the book is any reference to American's taking medical science seriously until the establishment of Johns Hopkins.

That Washington was aware of medical science at that early date was totally unknown to me.

Thanks for sharing.

Jennie W said...

This interested me enough that I did some more research and will be posting here in a minute on this subject and Thomas Jefferson.