John Adams: Smallpox Inoculation in 1764

smallpox inoculation
As Adams finished his first winter vacation at home, there was an outbreak of smallpox in Boston. He had not yet been inoculated against the disease. Instead of undergoing inoculation and missing four weeks of classes (see below), Adams braved the epidemic and returned to campus 1a.

During the smallpox epidemic of 1764 in Massachusetts, Adams, pressured by his mother 1b, decided to be inoculated. This was no small matter, as vaccination eventually became in the 20th century. Patients prepared themselves days ahead of time, and were often sick for weeks afterwards 2. Comment: Inoculation is different from vaccination. Inoculation introduces smallpox virus into the recipient. Vaccination introduces vaccinia virus into the recipient. Vaccinia confers protection against smallpox infection, but with far fewer side effects, since it is a much less virulent virus. Edward Jenner, the inventor of vaccination, should be high on everyone's list of greatest-ever human beings.

Ultimately, Adams was inoculated and spent three weeks in the hospital, suffering headaches, backaches, kneeaches, gagging fever, and eruption of pock marks SEE BELOW.

Adams followed the preparatory regimen of Adam Thompson MD. The future president's treatment began with a "vomit," followed by a strong cathartic. The prescribed diet was bread, milk, pudding, and rice. Adams describes the inoculation procedure itself:

Dr. Perkins demanded my left arm and Dr. Warren my brother's. They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin about a Quarter of an inch and just suffering the blood to appear, buried a thread (infected) about a Quarter of an inch long in the Channell. A little lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over all, and I was bid go where and do what I pleased. The doctors left us red and black to take Night and Morning, and ordered my Brother, larger Doses than me, on Account of the Differences in our Constitutions.
Adams and 9 other patients were confined to the hospital for 3 weeks. Adams suffered headaches, backaches, kneeaches, gagging fever, and eruption of pock marks. He wrote to his wife:

Do not conclude from any Thing I have written that I think Inoculation a light matter -- A long and total abstinence from everything in Nature that has any Taste; two long heavy Vomits, one heavy Cathartick, four and twenty Mercurial and Antimonial Pills, and, Three weeks of Close Confinement to an House, are, according to my Estimation, no small matters.
It was not until 1775 that Abigail had herself and her children inoculated. After three weeks, son Charles Francis (who grew to renown as a statesman and historian) developed a pox illness and was unconscious and delirious for 48 hours 2a.
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.9  b  p.10

    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. Blinderman, A. John Adams: fears, depressions, and ailments. NY State J Med. 1977;77:268-276. Pubmed: 320523.
    a  pp.274-275

    Comment: Covers all aspects of Adams and medicine. Sections include Adams' relation to the medical profession, his thoughts on health, his health history, and his encounters with smallpox.

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