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Monday, April 20, 2020

By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor


Experience is a good teacher. During the American Revolution a smallpox outbreak threatened to wipe out the Continental Army as it had thousands of Native Americans. Despite political opposition, George Washington, the army’s commander in chief, embraced science-based medicine, ushering in the new country’s first public health policy.


Washington’s initial move: immediately isolating anyone suspected of infection and limiting outside contact. He “prevented a disastrous epidemic among the Continental troops,” historian Ann Becker says. The military forbade anyone in Boston from entering the military zone. But Washington did more than that, Andrew Lawler writes for National Geographic. He moved to contain the threat.


As a teenager, Washington had suffered from the disease, caused by a variola virus, which killed as many as one in two victims. He, like many of the soldiers who had previously been exposed to the virus, was immune. As the epidemic spread, however, thousands—including many soldiers—died.


Washington, in conflict with the Continental Congress, ordered all troops inoculated against the virus, arguing that “necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure.” The procedure, called variolation, was controversial because it entailed making a small incision in a patient’s arm and inserting a dose of the live virus—large enough to trigger immunity but small enough to prevent severe illness or death. Infection rates dropped from 20 percent to one percent.


As infection rates dropped, colonies lifted their bans on variolations, America’s first major public health legislation. Today, research teams around the world are trying to identify a vaccine to halt the spread of the new coronavirus that has infected more than 2.4 million people and killed more than 165,000 worldwide.


The legacy of Washington’s order to inoculate his troops lived on . Army recruits for World War II received medical injections in Virginia in 1942.


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