George Washington And The Smallpox Vaccine

While fighting the Revolutionary War, George Washington pushed a controversial process called variolation to inoculate his troops against smallpox.

By Kaleena Fraga

During the 1770s, Americans had more to contend with than the Revolutionary War. Aside from the British, the country was also battling a smallpox epidemic, which tore through the Thirteen Colonies from 1775 to 1782.

To George Washington, the disease was as dangerous — if not more — than the British. By some estimates, more troops died of smallpox than they did in battle.

Washington knew he needed to act. But the only weapon he had at his disposal was a process called variolation. It protected against smallpox, but it was so controversial in the Colonies that some places had banned it.

George Washington’s Experience With Smallpox

George Washington as depicted in 1772 | Wikimedia Commons

By the time the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, very few Americans had ever had smallpox. The disease was endemic in Europe but the isolation of American towns and farms had limited its spread in the Colonies.

George Washington, however, was one of the few Americans who contracted the disease. He’d fallen ill with smallpox during a visit to Barbados with his brother, Lawrence, who’d hoped that the warm air would help his tuberculosis.

They stayed with a merchant named Gedney Clarke. However, Washington was reluctant to do so.

“We went,—myself with some reluctance, as the smallpox was in his family,” he wrote. Indeed, just two weeks later, Washington had smallpox. “Was strongly attacked with the small Pox,” he noted grimly in his journal — the last entry he made for 24 days.

Smallpox, caused by the Variola major virus, can spread through the air, through bodily fluids, or even by touching contaminated clothing. People with the disease experience fever, headaches, body pains, and eventually a bad rash. Some — about one in every two victims in the 18th-century — die after two weeks or so. Those who survive can take up to a month to recover.

Washington was lucky. After contracting the disease, he only had some scarring on his nose — as well as a lifelong immunity.

During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s immunity might have saved his life. It certainly gave him an inside perspective on what the disease could do.

Smallpox And The Revolutionary War

The Battle of Lexington and Concord | Wikimedia Commons

When the British arrived to quash the American rebellion, they carried more than guns and bayonets. They also brought smallpox.

George Washington was well-aware of the danger. Soon after he took command of the army in the summer of 1775, Washington wrote to the president of the Continental Congress that he was “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Smallpox.” Vowing to quarantine anyone who seemed to have the disease, Washington added that he would “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”

During the Siege of Boston, which followed the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Washington was put to the test. As Bostonians tried to seek refuge with the army, Washington was forced to turn them away.

 “Every precaution must be used to prevent its spreading,” Washington told one of his subordinates.

Still, Washington was hesitant to inoculate his troops. He worried that doing so would put them out of commission for weeks, just when he needed a strong hand against the British. Initially, he banned inoculation.

“The Enemy, knowing it, will certainly take Advantage of our Situation,” he wrote. Instead, he ordered the inoculation of new troops, figuring that they could take time to recover.

But the disease continued to ravage the American army. When General John Thomas marched on Quebec, he shrugged off Washington’s strict anti-smallpox procedures, and subsequently lost between one-third and one-half of his 10,000 troops to the disease.

“The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together,” John Adams despaired in 1776.

Washington knew he had to act. But he would have to fight more than smallpox itself — he’d also have to fight public opinion.

George Washington And Variolation

George Washington at Valley Forge | Mount Vernon

George Washington knew what to do when it came to fighting the British. And he knew what was needed to contain smallpox from spreading throughout the Colonies and his army.

Inoculation against smallpox dated back to ancient China. But in Colonial America, the process, called variolation, was controversial and dangerous.

It involved cutting an incision in someone’s skin and inserting a small amount of the live smallpox virus. (In 1796, Edward Jenner would invent a way to do this using cowpox.)

But the procedure still had a fatality rate of 5-10% — not great. King George III’s son died an agonizing death when his dose was improperly applied.

And many Americans didn’t trust the process. When inoculation was tried out in Boston in 1721, anti-vaxxers of the 18th-century were outraged and firebombed the house of the man behind the immunization effort. They believed he was actually spreading the disease — and defying the will of God.

Even in Washington’s time, variolation was illegal in his home state of Virginia.

But the general knew he needed to act. Washington was worried that the British would figure out the chink in the Americans’ armor, and use their men as walking bioweapons.

After some initial hesitation, Washington made his choice. He would inoculate his army. On February 5, 1777, he wrote a letter to John Hancock, the president of the Second Continental Congress, informing him of his decision.

“The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way,” Washington stated.

“I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr. Shippen to innoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia.”

The Impact Of Washington’s Actions

The signing of the U.S. Constitution | Wikimedia Commons

Although George Washington wavered before making his decision, his orders to inoculate the army may have helped the Americans win the war.

By the end of 1777, some 40,000 soldiers had been given protection against the virus. Infection rates dropped from 20% to 1%. And even holdouts in the Continental Congress were convinced by Washington’s success — they repealed existing bans on variolation across the Colonies.

All of this had to be done in secret. “I need not mention the necessity of as much secrecy as the nature of the Subject will admit of,” Washington wrote, “it being beyond doubt, that the Enemy will avail themselves of the event as far as they can.”

Stealthily, the Americans armed themselves against smallpox. And they prepared to meet the British on the battlefield in full strength.

Not everyone was protected, however. Some slaves had defected to the British, hoping for freedom. They were not inoculated by the British — who were already largely protected — and suffered from smallpox in large numbers. Similarly, Native Americans had no such protection, and also struggled to survive the surge of the disease.

But Washington’s actions add a significant angle to his legacy. When it came to defeating an invisible foe, he used the only weapon he had available to him — risks and all.

Washington and the Myth of Wooden Teeth

By Kaleena Fraga

(to listen to this piece in podcast form click here)

Today is George Washington’s 286th birthday. Name a fact–any fact about him. First president? Revolutionary War general? Something about a cherry tree? Wooden teeth?

Of the many myths surrounding Washington, the one about his teeth is among the most popular. In reality, Washington never had wooden teeth. But he did have dental problems, lots of them, requiring the use of dentures for a good chunk of his adult life. Rather than wooden teeth, however, as Ron Chernow writes in his Washington biography, Washington: A Life, most of the teeth in his dentures were likely made from walrus or elephant ivory. Chernow postulates that the myth arose from the “gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory that made it resemble a wood grain.” Washington also used several of his own pulled teeth in his dentures, and there’s documentation of his purchase of teeth from slaves (a grotesque, but common practice in the 18th century).


Washington found his dental problems highly embarrassing. They made his lips stick out, and made it hard for him to speak. The fake teeth often became discolored, once so much that Washington sent them to his dentist, John Greenwood for repair. Greenwood noted that they had turned black–possibly because the president drank so much port wine. That Washington felt so self-conscious about his teeth may explain his solemn look in most of his portraits.

Washington’s dental ordeals sound terrible–both painful and embarrassing, especially for someone who, as president and as a beloved public figure, was expected to entertain guests and speak publicly. His wife, Martha, also suffered from dental problems and both of them eventually wore dentures. Martha encouraged her grandchildren to invest in toothbrushes and cleansing powders to avoid the turmoil that she and her husband endured over their teeth.

By the time he became president, Washington had only one natural tooth remaining. When this tooth had to be pulled, Washington gifted it to his dentist, Greenwood. Greenwood originally drilled a hole through the tooth and tied it to his watch chain. He became worried it would break, and transferred it to a locket. On the locket is inscribed: “In New York 1790, Jn Greenwood made Pres Geo Washington a whole sett of teeth. The enclosed tooth is the last one which grew in his head.”

For those curious to see Washington’s smile in person, Mount Vernon has his dentures–the only full set in existence.

“My Fellow Americans”: A Brief History of the State of the Union

By Kaleena Fraga

On January 30th, Donald Trump followed presidential tradition in obeying the words written in the Constitution: that the executive, from time to time, should give Congress information on the state of the nation.

The first ever address was given by George Washington, in 1790. He and his successor, John Adams, both gave speeches to Congress.

Thomas Jefferson ended the short lived tradition of a spoken address, either because he thought it too king-like, because it took too much time, or perhaps due to his fear of public speaking. He instead sent a letter to Congress.

teddy and wilson
Teddy Roosevelt depicted reacting to Wilson’s spoken SOTU

It would take over one hundred years for the speech to return. Woodrow Wilson went to Congress to give his State of the Union, prompting the tradition that Trump followed on Tuesday.

Although most presidents post-Wilson have elected to give a speech, others have fallen back on written messages to Congress. The American Presidency Project has a comprehensive table of presidents giving oral or written addresses–after Wilson they clearly tilt in favor of addressing Congress in person. Still, there have been moments in recent history in which the president has forgone a formal, oral address to Congress. Truman, Eisenhower, and Carter chose to submit a written message instead of a formal address, when the address coincided with the election of a new president (1953, 1961, and 1981). Carter was the last president to do so.

The reach of the State of the Union (indeed, of all presidential addresses) has grown since its inception. Americans have gone from reading about it in the newspaper to hearing it on the radio (after Calvin Coolidge’s national broadcast in 1923) to seeing it on TV (with Harry Truman’s 1947 address) to sitting at home and watching it on the internet (which Bill Clinton did for the first time in 1997).

Two SOTU traditions were born under Ronald Reagan: first, the invitation of guests by the president and First Lady, and second, a response by the opposition party directly following the president’s speech (this had existed before, but would take place a few days later).

Clinton, perhaps unsurprisingly, holds the record for the longest address at one hour and bjctwenty-eight minutes. Each of his addresses to Congress were around or above the one hour mark. His speech was also the longest at 9,190 words (Washington’s, by comparison, was the shortest at 1,089 words).

Trump’s address on Tuesday was one of the slowest in history–in terms of words per minute. Richard Nixon spoke the most words per minute since the metric was recorded during the Johnson administration. He’s followed by Reagan and Clinton, with a near tie between George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Only two presidents never delivered a State of the Union, through letter or otherwise–William Henry Harrison and James Garfield. Both died (Harrison of pneumonia, Garfield by assassination) early in their presidencies.

As for that that ubiquitous phrase “my fellow Americans”? Lyndon Johnson coined that for the first time during one of his State of the Union speeches.