Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Smallpox at the Siege of Boston: "Vigilance against This Most Dangerous Enemy"

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Smallpox at the Siege of Boston: "Vigilance against This Most Dangerous Enemy"

Article excerpt

Historians of the American Revolution often fail to consider the impact of smallpox on the war, though military leaders on both sides of the conflict were preoccupied with preventing a smallpox outbreak, and their tactics and strategies were influenced by the disease. In June 1775, George Washington (1732-1799) was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress at Philadelphia. When he arrived in Boston on July 2, 1775, he found many problems awaiting him as he assumed command, not least among them smallpox.1 He was extremely anxious to prevent the variola virus, which causes smallpox, from spreading among his soldiers, not only for the obvious reason that an epidemic among the troops would wreak havoc with his ability to fight the British and might threaten the very existence of his army, but because fear of smallpox might retard enlistment in the new army. Washington thus made the health of his troops one of his top priorities as he instituted new policies and enforced his own methods of discipline on the disjointed, unorganized soldiers he found before Boston. He ordered strict enforcement of numerous directives regarding proper housing, food, and cleanliness, as evidenced by his orders and correspondence, to contain and control the smallpox contagion. 2 It was the largest threat to the health of the army massed outside Boston, and Washington himself recognized it as an enemy of the greatest magnitude.

Washington took steps to contain and control the infection from his earliest days near Boston.3 The presence of smallpox influenced his decision to maintain the siege rather than take more aggressive action. In fact, the British ensured American inaction by intentionally introducing the variola virus into military camps outside Boston. This early use of biological warfare precipitated a smallpox epidemic in Massachusetts in 1776. The failure of various traditional methods of smallpox containment led directly to the use of inoculation, or variolation, and, for the first time, citizens and soldiers were authorized to use the procedure during a two-week period in July. 4 Smallpox proved a formidable foe for the combatants during the first years of the war. This article details efforts to monitor and contain the spread of smallpox, with particular emphasis on the diligent attempts by both armies to control its impact on military events during the long siege.

SMALLPOX IN THE COLONIES

The American colonies had suffered periodic epidemics of smallpox since their founding. In the seventeenth century, Boston suffered six epidemics, the worst of which occurred in 1721, when methods traditionally used to prevent the spread of diseases, such as quarantine and isolation, failed to contain it. Out of a population of 11,000, over 6,000 cases were reported. Though inoculation was commonly practiced in other parts of the world by the early eighteenth century, it was only beginning to be discussed in the colonies. The practice of inoculation was based on the simple observation that those who survived smallpox, whether they had a moderate or severe case, were significantly less likely to contract the disease again.

Variolation was described in 1716, in the British Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, in an article entitled "An account, or History, of Procuring the SMALL POX by Incision or Inoculation; as It Has for Some Time Been Practised at Constantinople," by the Greek-born physician Emanuel Timon. In 1721, Cotton Mather, who had learned about the practice from his West African slave Onesimus and sought further verification of its efficacy from other Africans in Boston, campaigned for the systematic use of inoculation, prompting fierce public debate.5 Mather concluded that the practice was safe.6 He explained his confidence in it, writing about the ancient practice in Africa, "where the Poor Creatures dy of the Small-Pox like Rotten Sheep, a Merciful GOD has taught then an Infallible Praeservative. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.