Friday, September 18, 2009

Thomas Jefferson and Smallpox

I'm on a medical bent this week! Anyway, the last post actually really interested me, so I thought I'd look into Jefferson on this subject as he was always into new scientific ventures. Jefferson was into new science, but was not a fan of medicine in general:
Thomas Jefferson was skeptical of medicine[1] as known and practiced in his time. In a lengthy letter to his good friend, Dr. Caspar Wistar, he apologized for "venturing so far out of my depth" but proceeded, nevertheless, to outline his observations of medicine versus the natural healing powers in nature. He believed that each human body was so unique and illness so varied that it was near impossible to suggest remedies for any other than a few well-recognized diseases. Thus, it was often better to let nature heal the body. Medicines should be introduced only if the disease was recognized and the medicine known to speed the natural process of healing.

Yet Jefferson was innoculated against smallpox and helped to increase overall inncoluation as this seemed one area where he was willing to trust medical science:
This increased presence of the disease [smallpox] in Virginia may have prompted Jefferson to encourage his wife, Martha, to accompany him to Philadelphia in 1776 with one objective being smallpox inoculation. His friend Thomas Nelson encouraged him, “You must certainly bring Mrs. Jefferson with you. Mrs. Nelson shall nurse her in the small pox and take all possible care of her.”[9] Mrs. Jefferson did not make the trip to Philadelphia, and it is uncertain whether she ever received inoculation before her death in September 1782. But it is a testimonial to Jefferson’s confidence in smallpox inoculation that just two months after the devastating loss of his wife, he had their daughters inoculated.[10]

After becoming president in 1801, Jefferson expanded his commitment to smallpox inoculation. His library catalog indicates that he followed the work of the British physicians Edward Jenner and John Lettsom in their experiments with the use of the milder cowpox as an effective immunization against smallpox.[11] He worked with American doctors, especially Benjamin Waterhouse, to establish this new vaccine, also known as kinepox, in the United States and allowed his name to be used as an endorsement.

Jefferson brought his involvement to a new level during the summer of 1801, when he directed the inoculation of Monticello slaves, his sons-in-law, and some of his neighbors – about 200 people in all, according to his estimate. He began with vaccine received from Dr. Waterhouse but then was able to collect his own vaccine from those inoculated, and from this was able to send vaccine to other parts of Virginia and to Washington.[12] Some of his notes and statistics were published in Dr. John Coxe’s “Practical Observations on Vaccination: or Inoculation for the Cow-Pock,” and Jefferson received a letter from the Royal Jennerian Society in London recognizing his promotion of the vaccine in the United States.[13]

Jefferson also espoused the value of inoculation in his June 1803 instructions to Meriwether Lewis, who was preparing for what would become the Lewis and Clark Expedition: “Carry with you some matter of the kine-pox; inform those of them with whom you may be, of it’s efficacy as a preservative from the smallpox; & encourage them in the use of it.”[14]

The first article I referenced talked about some of the medical remedies that Jefferson used, but he remained, overall, skeptical of them throughout his life.

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