WHEN HOURS COUNT, BUT
DAYS DON'T MATTER
The American experience with biological warfare dates back to the battles fought during the very revolution that founded our country. At the height of the war against the British, General George Washington received reports that the British were spreading “the pox” (i.e., smallpox) among the colonial troops. The reports turned out to be true as the Continental Army began suffering manpower losses from the disease.
On January 6, 1777, Washington gave the order for the army to be variolated against smallpox. Variolation was not like vaccinations today. In fact, it was much more dangerous that anything we in the modern world would accept. Instead of receiving an injection of a weakened virus or a relatively benign cousin of smallpox known as cowpox, variolation meant inserting material from a fresh smallpox lesion into the skin or nasal lining of a healthy individual.1
It was a grim but necessary calculation for the Virginian general. The mortality rate from variolation is approximately one in 300. However, the death rate of troops exposed to smallpox with no prior protection was closer to one in six. The army's cohesion as a fighting force could be preserved with a casualty rate caused by variolation. To expose the army to smallpox would quite literally decimate the American forces and force Washington to surrender to the British.