Sunday, May 24, 2009

Washington Orders Inoculations

One of the most stirring scenes in the hit HBO miniseries John Adams is the inoculation of Abigail and her children. Instead of today's modern inoculation methods (which still cause many to squirm and even pass out) colonial inoculation was much more barbaric. The process involved the cutting of the flesh accompanied by the direct introduction of the smallpox virus into the bleeding tissue. As can be imagined, many within the colonial community saw inoculation as an insane method of treatment. There were even debates amongst medical practitioners as to its effectiveness.

What most people don't know when it comes to inoculation during this time period is that General George Washington actually ordered the soldiers of the Continental Army to be inoculated. Washington was a strong supporter of inoculation, believing that the medical procedure would greatly reduce the chances of natural infection. Though the procedure had many skeptics, Washington firmly believed that the benefits of inoculation far outweighed the risks. In fact, Washington became so paranoid about the spread of smallpox during the early years of the war that he literally became obsessed with inoculating the troops. During the siege of Boston, Washington's concern about the spread of smallpox caused him to issue an order stating that no soldier could enter the city unless he had been infected with smallpox in the past.

Washington's experience with smallpox during his youth was probably the primary determining factor in shaping his opinion on inoculation. During a trip to the Caribbean with brother Lawrence, Washington was infected with smallpox. In fact, Washington carried a few pockmark scars on his face to remind him of this nearly fatal encounter. His experiences during the French & Indian War had also confirmed to Washington that inoculation was essential for any army. During the war, Washington witnessed several British raids that were unsuccessful, due to the depleted manpower of the British Army all brought on by the "bloody pox."

In his highly acclaimed Washington biography, His Excellency, historian Joseph Ellis makes the claim that Washington's decision to inoculate the Continental Army was one of his finest moments:

Washington understood the ravaging implications of a smallpox epidemic within the congested conditions of the encampment, and he regularly quarantined patients that were infected with the virus...And although many educated Americans opposed inoculation, believing that it actually spread the disease, Washington strongly supported it...When historians debate Washington's most consequential decisions as commander in chief, they are almost always arguing about specific battles. A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career.
In today's modern world we enjoy the benefits of understanding the scientific advancements of modern medicine. As a result, the decision to be inoculated is a "no-brainer" of sorts because of our understanding of infectious diseases. For colonial Americans, however, this was very much a roll of the dice. Fortunately for the Continental Army, Washington was brave enough to take the gamble.

8 comments:

Lindsey Shuman said...

I still hate needles...they make me sick!!!

Dan said...

I think I am going to like this new aspect of the blog. It will be less confrontational.

Tom Van Dyke said...

When historians debate Washington's most consequential decisions as commander in chief, they are almost always arguing about specific battles. A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career...


Perhaps. Strategically, he is credited with keeping the Continental Army together and in the field. As a battlefield commander, he lost most of his battles: Jefferson said he was "not a great tactician" and John Adams called him "an old muttonhead," according to this:

http://books.google.com/books?id=Zd4oeHzIBRgC&pg=PA30&lpg=PA30&dq=%22george+washington%22+tactician+muttonhead&source=bl&ots=I1gRCUkLb4&sig=GTMUDTf49zrMTJxeOFUCNmLjR0I&hl=en&ei=OgEaStLkLpTUswPm5OXZCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2

Mark in Spokane said...

First, I still hope this blog continues to address issues regarding religion and the American founding. It is a topic that needs to be addressed in a serious way -- one that avoids extremes to focus on the deep faith of the founding era, while at the same time pointing out the diversity and variety of that faith.

Second, Washington gets a bad rap as a general sometimes, but he was playing with the hand he was dealt. Was he a Napoleon? No. He had few great victories. But at the same time, he had few crushing defeats. He was often cautious, sometimes foolhardy, but he was precisely the right man for the job.

As for the innoculations, it is an example of far-sighted thinking driven by circumstances -- the close quarters and weakened conditions of his soldiers at Valley Forge. That winter was a crucible for the fledging American army -- its improvement was fueled by its desperate situation. While it was brave, it was a risk that Washington was pushed to take.

Third, the fact that Washington was often driven to certain decisions by circumstance does not diminish his role in the least. Great leaders often arise in trying times, and their decisions are often limited by the possibilities that are presented to them. It is what they do with those possibilities -- as well as a good deal of luck -- that sets them apart. Washington had the three characteristics necessary for a good leader: he inspired confidence (he looked the part!), he made good decisions given his options, and he was lucky.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you, Mark. Washington's accomplishment was in outlasting the British--- strategy, not tactics. I've thought that his affinity for stoicism and the Stoics was at the heart of it. Valley Forge in particular was a triumph of stoicism.

Mark in Spokane said...

Tom,

Yes, Washington was strongly influenced by Stoicism -- at least the way Stoicism was popularly understood in late colonial and revolutionary America. His favorite play was Cato -- a colonial-era celebration of typical Roman values (hearth, devotion, patriotism, etc.).

I remember reading in Brookheiser's biography of Washington that one of Washington's favorite books was a translation of Seneca's Moral Essays. And while Seneca himself certainly didn't live a Stoic lifestyles, his Essays are classic expositions of Roman Stoic philosophy.

Brad Hart said...

I think we also need to ask the question, was the American Revolution WON by America or LOST by the British? Did "home field advantage" simply prove to be too much for Britain to overcome?

As for Washington's abilities, I think it's clear that he was far from a brilliant war tactician. Even students at West Point are taught this truth today. However, becoming a "great" general is not determined exclusively by what one does with tactics. Being able to inspire, protect, motivate, etc. are all key components as well...just look at Eisenhower. Much of his praise is due to these factors.

I'm with Mark. Washington was the right guy at the right time. But Tom is also right in pointing out that Washington didn't need to really WIN the war so much as he needed to make sure he never LOST it.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think we also need to ask the question, was the American Revolution WON by America or LOST by the British? Did "home field advantage" simply prove to be too much for Britain to overcome?

Sure. They were hassling with their perennial enemy and greater threat, the French, anyway, which accounts for why the French fleet was in attendance at Yorktown, the final act.

Plus Britain had no enthusiasm for massacring their closest cousins. Unlike how they dealt with the "mutiny" in India, for instance.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Rebellion_of_1857

Would the colonists and George Washington have fought on against such ruthlessness and resolve as Britain showed in 1857?

Me, I don't think so, and that we flatter ourselves to think we would have.

Am I charging Britain with racism here? Well, yeah, despite Britain's better and best angels in embargoing and blockading the African slave trade in the early 1800s.

But let's get real---Britain only half-heartedly tried to keep her American colonies, never used the level of force it did in India, and the American colonists never endured what India did.

And in the American Revolution Part Deux, "Mr. Madison's War," Britain contented itself with burning up the White House and said the hell with it. The only reason they were impressing sailors was because they were at war with France again. After they scotched Napoleon, there was no reason to fight atall and peace soon followed.

It was a family quarrel, some killing, a little rockets' red glare, typical for the times. No big deal.

Interesting story, though:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_1812

Madison should have conquered Canada when he had the chance, though. That would have been cool.