29 April 2010

The Smallpox Inoculation and the American Revolution



Last Sunday, the History Channel premiered the documentary, "America: The Story of Us." I was pleasantly surprised on how they told the story of America through drama reenactments and narratives from historical quotes. Having the President introduce the series and embedded statements from politicians, actors, and noteworthy historians—such as Oprah's historian friend who got arrested last year for breaking into his own home—gave the documentary much needed weight (I'm a little sarcastic here). Despite the unnecessary interjections of the famous, the series shows accuracy and depicts a picture, although brief, of what occurred prior to American democracy. Needless to say, of course the brevity left out much needed facts, such as the many trials to establish American colonies and that Paul Revere wasn't the only rider to warn the Patriots that the British were coming prior to Lexington and Concord; but the documentary also brought to light many rare facts of the colonies and the American Revolution. I was surprised that they even noted the practice of smallpox inoculations during the Revolution.

I, myself a recent history graduate, did not learn of this practice until late last fall when I was reading letters between Abigail and John Adams.
Smallpox inoculation has been practiced in China since the 10th century A.D., but the practice did not come to West until the early 18th century by Lady Mary Wotley Montagu, whose husband served as the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1716-17. She inoculated her children and had several people witness this new practice, including the King's physician. Soon the practice of smallpox inoculation became common amid European royalty, despite much opposition. The practice is documented in America as early as 1721, and by the time of the American Revolution smallpox inoculation had become a common practice.

In a letter from Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, she writes of the inoculation in Massachusetts in July of 1776.
I now date from Boston where I yesterday arrived and was with all 4 of our Little ones innoculated for the small pox...Our Little ones stood the opperation Manfully.Dr. Bulfinch is our Physician. Such a Spirit of innoculation never before took place; the Town and every House in it, are as full as they can hold...The Soldiers innoculated privately, so did many of the inhabitants.


The winter of 1777-1778 brought the soldiers to Valley Forge. Conditions were so horrendous that 2,000 soldiers died of starvation, typhoid, jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia. Many others deserted to return home without pay or question. Witnessing the deplorable conditions, Washington knew something would have to change into improve the livelihoods and morale of his men. That spring he brought in Baron von Steuben to run the men though drills and military training, and Washington also had the men inoculated for smallpox. This act from Washington changed the tide of the war as they marched out of Valley Forge in June of 1778.

A well-done miniseries from HBO on John Adams chronicles the life of John and Abigail Adams, which includes the practice of inoculation on their children. This series changed my perspective of John Adams, played by Paul Giamatti, as well as depicted Abigail Adams as John's pillar of strength.
Currently I'm reading Diana Gabaldon's seventh book of the Outlander series, An Echo in the Bone. This book focuses on the American Revolution, particularly on the battles of Saratoga, and includes such historical figures as Benedict Arnold, General John Burgoyne, General Simon Fraser, General Horatio Gates, and Colonel Daniel Morgan (to name a few).

8 comments:

  1. Please write in English if you can. I cannot read your comment.

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  2. Great entry....I havent started watching the new series yet but I am looking forward to sitting down and seeing what I can learn!

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  3. Great one Jen! Very interesting stuff!
    Did you know that the dude who discovered the smallpox vaccine, Edward Jenner, got the idea from milkmaids? They got exposed to cowpox, which is genetically similar enough to smallpox that they made antibodies that worked against it. The word "vaccine" comes from the latin word for cow--cause they were, in large part, responsible for the whole thing!
    Yes, I am a huge nerd, but so are you!

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  4. Yeah, I find it very interesting that inoculation had been around for centuries in China before it ever came to the Americas, and what a great part it played in our history. That is very interesting about vaccines...I had no idea that it all started with the cow.

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