How George Washington Fought A Smallpox Epidemic

 In History

General George Washington didn’t just fight against the British in the American  Revolution, he had to fight an epidemic of smallpox. And he fought it in spite of Congressional bans on the only procedure available to stop the spread. In so doing, he saved the lives of the Continental Army, who lived to bring victory to the United States.

Stricken with smallpox himself

When Washington was a teenager in 1751, he traveled to Barbados. There, he wrote that he was “strongly attacked by the small Pox.” After a month of chills, fever, and the painful pustules, he emerged from the fight with the signature pockmarked face of survivors… and immunity.  The disease had killed at least one in two people at the time.

It was fortuitous for the budding United States that George Washington was a smallpox survivor.


In 1775, after Lexington and Concord, the smallpox epidemic arrived in Boston from the German, British, and Canadian troops that occupied the city. It is believed the foreign troops brought it with them. Washington’s troops set up camp across the Charles River from the city. But the General prohibited anyone from Boston from entering the military camp in order set up a “isolation zone” to protect his troops.

“Every precaution must be used to prevent its spreading,”  he wrote.

By isolating the troops, Washington prevented a disaster. In 1776, when the British withdrew from Boston, Washington only allowed those soldiers who had suffered from smallpox to enter the city. It was a force of about 1,000 men who were then immune. By the fall of 1776, the epidemic had spread to Philadelphia.

But George Washington didn’t want to just “contain” the outbreak, he wanted to kill it.


A rudimentary vaccine for smallpox was known from history at the time. A tiny portion of live virus was inserted into a small slit in a person’s arm. The person would only get a mild form of the disease, and then have immunity. The procedure, called variolation, was illegal in the colonies. Congress ordered Army surgeons not to do the procedure.  It effectively hamstrung General Washington.

An American force under the command of Major General John Thomas was sent to march on Quebec in 1776. But Thomas failed to follow General Washington’s strict disease protocols, so he and about 1/3 to 1/2 of his 10,000 troops succumbed to smallpox. The force was soundly defeated.

“The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together.” John Adams 1776

Congress didn’t understand the danger the troops were in, but General Washington understood well.

George Washington orders soldier sent to Philadelphia in order to receive small pox inoculations – George Washington to David Grier, March 12, 1777. [RM-1171; MS-5907]. Washington Library, Mount Vernon, VA.

Bucking Congress

Washington was aware that the disease threatened to take out what few Continental troops were available. He bucked the Congressional ban on the procedure and ordered all new recruits be vaccinated. Therefore they would all be supplied, and have only a mild form of the disease, ready to fight by the summer.

“As the epidemic spread, Washington decided to act. The following February, he informed Hancock that ‘I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way.’ He ordered all troops inoculated, noting to his leading medical officer that ‘necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure.’ By the end of 1777, some 40,000 soldiers had been vaccinated.

Historians say the general’s bold move proved critical to the revolution’s success. ‘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,’ historian Joseph Ellis says.” National Geographic

Because his program of ‘vaccination’ proved successful, and infection rates dropped from 20% to 1%, Congress repealed the ban on variolation. It became the first public health legislation in America. The fledgling nation  went on to win the Revolutionary War.

“For with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved.” General George Washington

Featured photo: all pictures are screenshots via video.


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