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George Washington ordered his troops to be inoculated against smallpox and won the war

… controversial medical action won the war

George Washington has been called the Father of Our Country because of his actions in bringing the colonies into an organization known was the United States of America.

However, many people would call him “un-American” today if they knew what he did to win the war. When the health of his troops was at risk because of Variola, the small pox virus, he ordered all of his troops to be inoculated.

Would the anti-vaxxers who are waving the flag of freedom understand that the formation of our country was contingent upon forced inoculations?

Probably not.

“Controversial medical actions”

According to an article by three professors, Washington’s action kept his troops healthy and without it, could not have won the war,

American independence must be partially attributed to a strategy for which history has given the infamous general little credit: his controversial medical actions. Traditionally, the Battle of Saratoga is credited with tipping the revolutionary scales. Yet the health of the Continental regulars involved in battle was a product of the ambitious initiative Washington began earlier that year at Morristown, close on the heels of the victorious Battle of Princeton. Among the Continental regulars in the American Revolution, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease, and Variola the small pox virus was the most vicious of them all. (Gabriel and Metz 1992, 107)

On the 6th of January 1777, George Washington wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr., ordering him to inoculate all of the forces that came through Philadelphia. He explained that: "Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy."

Amy Lynn Filsinger and Raymond Dwek, “George Washington and

first mass military inoculation,” Library of Congress.

British were already inoculated

With the success of the war on the line, Washington took the controversial step to order the inoculations,

The urgency was real. Troops were scarce and encampments had turned into nomadic hospitals of festering disease, deterring further recruitment. Both Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin, after surveying the havoc wreaked by Variola in the Canadian campaign, expressed fears that the virus would be the army's ultimate downfall. (Fenn 2001, 69)

At the time, the practice of infecting the individual with a less-deadly form of the disease was widespread throughout Europe. Most British troops were immune to Variola, giving them an enormous advantage against the vulnerable colonists. (Fenn 2001, 131) Conversely, the history of inoculation in America (beginning with the efforts of the Reverend Cotton Mather in 1720) was pocked by the fear of the contamination potential of the process. Such fears led the Continental Congress to issue a proclamation in 1776 prohibiting Surgeons of the Army to inoculate.

Washington suspected the only available recourse was inoculation, yet contagion risks aside, he knew that a mass inoculation put the entire army in a precarious position should the British hear of his plans. Moreover, Historians estimate that less than a quarter of the Continental Army had ever had the virus; inoculating the remaining three quarters and every new recruit must have seemed daunting. Yet the high prevalence of disease among the army regulars was a significant deterrent to desperately needed recruits, and a dramatic reform was needed to allay their fears.

Amy Lynn Filsinger and Raymond Dwek, “George Washington and

first mass military inoculation,” Library of Congress.

Was a very unpopular policy

Washington deserves credit for taking this step because public opinion was opposed to the step. Sort of like some of the population right now, except that the deaths are now approaching 700 thousand,

Weighing the risks, on February 5th of 1777, Washington finally committed to the unpopular policy of mass inoculation by writing to inform Congress of his plan. Throughout February, Washington, with no precedent for the operation he was about to undertake, covertly communicated to his commanding officers orders to oversee mass inoculations of their troops in the model of Morristown and Philadelphia (Dr. Shippen's Hospital). At least eleven hospitals had been constructed by the year's end.

Variola raged throughout the war, devastating the Native American population and slaves who had chosen to fight for the British in exchange for freedom. Yet the isolated infections that sprung up among Continental regulars during the southern campaign failed to incapacitate a single regiment. With few surgeons, fewer medical supplies, and no experience, Washington conducted the first mass inoculation of an army at the height of a war that immeasurably transformed the international system. Defeating the British was impressive, but simultaneously taking on Variola was a risky stroke of genius.

Amy Lynn Filsinger and Raymond Dwek, “George Washington and first

mass military inoculation,” Library of Congress

That un-American George Washington who routinely is listed among the three greatest presidents in American history along with Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

And, it might be noted, Lincoln also did away with a constitutional right to Habeas Corpus during the Civil War.


Fenn, Elizabeth. Pox Americana: the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. 370 p.

Gabriel, Richard, and Karen Metz. A History of Military Medicine. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. 2 v.

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