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How Smallpox Inoculations Helped Win the American Revolution

By April 26, 2010

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Last evening, I was fascinated for two hours by the History Channel's presentation of America - The Story of Us.  It was absolutely riveting and I can't wait to watch future episodes.

Among the bits of information I never knew (and there were dozens!) was the the fact that smallpox could have changed the results of the American Revolution.  And, during the winter at Valley Forge, George Washington decided to begin inoculating soldiers.  Had he not taken that step, we could have lost the war, and our freedom.

Think about that -- inoculation against a deadly disease meant we Americans could go on to win the war.

I decided to look it up this morning to learn more.  One aspect that really surprised me was the concept of inoculation / vaccination that early in history.  As it turns out, the first vaccinations took place in America more than 50 years before that in Boston, arranged by a gentleman named Cotton Mather, who vaccinated two slaves and his own 6-year old son against smallpox.  Each of them was mildly sick, but none died, nor did any of the three ever come down with smallpox again.

As George Washington watched so many of his soldiers die throughout that winter in Valley Forge, he remembered his wife describing what she had read about inoculation. So he ordered his medics to create small wounds in healthy soldiers' arms, then rub some of the pus from the pox developed by infected soldiers into those wounds.

Eventually, according to the History Channel program, that vaccination saved all but one in 50 soldiers, meaning the army could go on to fight.

That was early herd immunity, too.  The healthier the population of soldiers in general, the less chance the other soldiers would get sick.  By protecting the entire group -- we Americans won our freedom. We can only imagine how the world would have been changed had George Washington not insisted his soldiers be vaccinated.

In the late 1700s, the idea of inoculation or vaccination was so new and untested.  I'm sure people were as afraid of the vaccine as they were of the disease.

Now fast forward to today.  When it comes to new viral threats, seems like not much has changed.  Thank heavens enough of us are willing to be vaccinated so we protect the rest of our herd - our loved ones, friends and neighbors who refuse, argue or spend their lives figuring out why they should not.

By the way - if you were born before 1972, chances are excellent you've been inoculated against smallpox, too.  That's that scar on your upper arm, near your shoulder.  The World Health Organization declared smallpox to be eradicated in 1980.

If you're interested, learn more about smallpox and its eradication from the About.com Guide to Dermatology.

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Photo from Wikipedia Commons / US Library of Congress

Comments
February 2, 2012 at 9:18 pm
(1) Bruce says:

I saw the series and I remember the narrator crediting the inoculation procedure to African slaves. I guess you needed a more palpable explanation.
From Wikipedia:
Cotton Mather, successfully inoculated two slaves and his own son. Mather, a prominent Boston minister, had heard a description of the African practice of inoculation from his Sudanese slave, Onesimus,

May 15, 2012 at 9:43 am
(2) american says:

the part where the African Slaves had helped was left out here!!! if you are going to tell history, please tell all of it as it is!

June 10, 2012 at 5:00 pm
(3) Tasha says:

I’m watching the episode now and noticed the same thing. The History Channel attributed the innoculation of Small Pox success to Africans. So, I also ask, why would you not mention this in your article?

Signed:

African-American Registered Nurse :-)

June 10, 2012 at 5:02 pm
(4) Tasha says:

I’m watching the episode now and noticed the same thing. The History Channel attributed the inoculation of Small Pox success to Africans. So, I also ask, why would you not mention this in your article?

Signed:

African-American Registered Nurse :-)

June 10, 2012 at 5:20 pm
(5) Tasha says:

Here is the TRUTH of the matter:

“Cotton Mather learned the technique of inoculation from a slave he owned named Onesimus.” – A People’s History of Science – Booknoise.net

Wikipedia:

“In 1706 a slave, Onesimus, explained to Cotton Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. Mather was fascinated by the idea” – Wikipedia

Posted on W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research:

“Onesimus (fl. 1706 – 1717), slave and medical pioneer…Little is known of Onesimus after he purchased his freedom, but in 1721 Cotton Mather used information he had learned five years earlier from his former slave to combat a devastating smallpox epidemic that was then sweeping Boston… my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow” (Winslow, 33). Onesimus explained that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding, That it was often used among [Africans] and whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.” (Winslow, 33)”

Herbert, Eugenia W. “Smallpox Inoculation in Africa.” Journal of African History 16 (1975).
Mather, Cotton. Diary (1912).
Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984).
Winslow, Ola. A Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston (1974).
Steven J. Niven

June 10, 2012 at 5:26 pm
(6) TRUTH says:

Here is the TRUTH of the matter:

“Cotton Mather learned the technique of inoculation from a slave he owned named Onesimus.” – A People’s History of Science – Booknoise.net

Wikipedia:

“In 1706 a slave, Onesimus, explained to Cotton Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. Mather was fascinated by the idea” – Wikipedia

Posted on W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research:

“Onesimus (fl. 1706 – 1717), slave and medical pioneer…Little is known of Onesimus after he purchased his freedom, but in 1721 Cotton Mather used information he had learned five years earlier from his former slave to combat a devastating smallpox epidemic that was then sweeping Boston… my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty Intelligent Fellow” (Winslow, 33). Onesimus explained that he had undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding, That it was often used among [Africans] and whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.” (Winslow, 33)”

Herbert, Eugenia W. “Smallpox Inoculation in Africa.” Journal of African History 16 (1975).
Mather, Cotton. Diary (1912).
Silverman, Kenneth. The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984).
Winslow, Ola. A Destroying Angel: The Conquest of Smallpox in Colonial Boston (1974).
Steven J. Niven

September 17, 2012 at 11:18 am
(7) alex says:

If you are going to post an article, proof read it first please.

“And, during the winter at Valley Forge, George Washington decided to begin inoculating soldiers. Had he not taken that step, would could have easily lost the war, and our freedom.” (would could=incorrect grammar)

September 18, 2012 at 7:33 am
(8) Trisha Torrey says:

Thanks for the heads up, Alex.

Of the thousands of articles and blog posts I’ve written at this site, is that the only typo you could find?

I always appreciate someone calling typos to my attention so I can fix them. But the snarkiness isn’t really necessary.

November 9, 2012 at 6:17 am
(9) Dean says:

Trisha, are you going to thank Tasha for the heads up about the African involvement in medical technology that helped Mr Washington defeat the British? That gained ‘freedom’ for all American non-slaves.

The total lack of acknowledgement of this so important fact is stark, as is your complete lack of awareness that half the population of the USA at this point still remained in chains and bondage. Please read the full facts of history before writing your blogs in future, it really is important that history stops being ‘His Story’

December 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm
(10) W Dimsdale says:

It would be interesting to know whether Ben Franklin’s friendship with a young Dutchman, and later Fellow of the Royal Society, Jan Ingenhous had anything to do with General Washington’s decision to innoculate his troops. Innoculation was well tried, successful and safe. Symptoms were not unlike Flue, but until the patient recovered, he/she was infectious and had to be kept apart from those who had not been treated.
Jan Ingenhous had been an assistant to Dr Dimsdale in a mass innoculation in Hertfordshire prior to this period.
Jan Ingenhous went on to innoculate the Austrian Royal family, and Dimsdale, the Russian Court, including the Empress Catherine (the Great) her son Paul and later her grandchildren Alexander and Constantine.

December 28, 2013 at 11:51 am
(11) Christopherson says:

I would like to know why you have not acknowledged where Cotton Mather learnt the inoculation technique from? The tv series you watched and other people that commented on your post have pointed out the technique was learnt from African slaves. Even the “gentleman” slaver you attribute it to was honest enough to say he learnt it from an African slave. So, again this begs my question, why can’t you do the same?
I know the importance of small pox inoculation and its impact on the revolutionary war is not lost on you, so why haven’t you acknowledged the true facts as they have been reported from multiple sources?

I see that you are an avid blogger and you saw fit to respond to a comment that criticized your grammatical error. Is a grammatical error more important than historical accuracy?

Or is the fact that a large part of the success of the American Revolutionary War was due to an African medical procedure just too much for you to stomach?

December 29, 2013 at 5:45 pm
(12) Trisha Torrey says:

To all of you who are so insistent that I mention that Cotton Mather learned to inoculate based on what he learned about inoculation in Africa….

Bless him for doing so, for learning from Africans, and for passing on the practice.

However….

This post was not about where inoculation came from. It wasn’t intended to be a history of inoculation. This post was intended to show that being vaccinated is an important way to fend off disease and that American history would have been very different if inoculation against smallpox had not been used during the Revolutionary War.

It seems that one person, using a number of IDs has taken it upon himself to show me the error of my ways. In fact, the joke is on that person because he missed the point of the post entirely.

So – to be sure there are no more such diatribes or accusations, comments for this post will now be closed.

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