Document reveals smallpox threat during Revolutionary War

A 1777 order signed by George Washington to send troops to Philadelphia to receive the smallpox vaccination recently went on display at Mount Vernon, Virginia, the museum in the former home of the first U.S. president and Revolutionary War general.

Mount Vernon calls Washington’s decision a significant reason that smallpox did not decimate his army. Evidence presented by biodefense expert Jonathan Tucker takes a somewhat different view of the affair. To Tucker, Washington was responding to the use of a bioweapon by British forces, a strategy they had already used once to great effect against the colonists, according to

A form of vaccination called variolation was available at the time, but infected some of those undergoing the treatment with a mild form of smallpox that was contagious and often resulted in those exposed developing the full-blown disease.

Washington’s army was largely composed of rural conscripts who were less-likely to have been exposed to the virus as their urban counterparts, and most had not been variolated. They would have been highly vulnerable to an epidemic of smallpox.

Tucker said that this situation was exactly what the British were expecting. In his history of smallpox, Tucker demonstrates that the British forces had used smallpox to control the Indian population in the colonies in the 1760s and had sent recently-variolated civilians to mingle with the besieging revolutionaries around Boston in 1775, reports.

In 1776, according to Tucker, while the Americans were invading Quebec City, the British sent variolated prostitutes to their camps. Half of the 10,000 man besieging army fell ill and thousands were buried in mass graves. The besiegers left the city in tatters.

Tucker reports that Washington was hardly acting ahead of his time by inoculating his troops. He was merely responding to a familiar British strategy.

Now, some 30 years after the eradication of smallpox and over two centuries after Washington’s army were inoculated, the fear that someone will use the remaining stocks of the disease as a weapons means the U.S. still vaccinates its troops.