George Washington: Smallpox and the Continental Army

At age 19 Washington and his half-brother Lawrence spent time on the island of Barbados, hoping the climate would benefit Lawrence. Lawrence was ill with tuberculosis. Around this time George developed a severe case of smallpox, which ultimately left his skin scarred for life 1a 2a. Comment: It is possible that his sterility (see below) resulted from this episode of smallpox 3.

Later, as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the 1770s, Washington took an unprecedented step by insisting that no recruit could join the army until vaccinated against smallpox 2b 4a SEE BELOW.

By this action, the American army became the first to try wholesale inoculations of its soldiers against smallpox.

Washington obtained approval from the Continental Congress for this program after observing the effect of smallpox on General Horatio Gates' American Northern Army. Of Gates' 10,000 troops, 5500 had to be hospitalized, and the campaign had to be suspended for five weeks. 4a

Of note, Edward Jenner did not perform his first smallpox inoculation until 1778. 4a

Cited Sources
  1. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
    a  p.1

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

  2. Flexner, James Thomas. Washington: The Indispensible Man. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974.
    a  p.8  b  p.132

    Comment: Distillation of Flexner's four-volume biography of Washington published from 1965 to 1972.

  3. Kar JK, Phadke AM. Vaso-epididymal anastomosis. Fertil Steril. 1975; 26: 743-756. Pubmed: 1157961.
  4. Gabriel, Richard A.; Metz, Karen S. A History of Military Medicine, Volume 2. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992.
    a  p.108

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