J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

No Pox Party in John Adams

I thought I was done writing about H.B.O.’s John Adams miniseries for a while, but interesting comments on Dr. Samuel Gelston’s smallpox hospitals got me thinking about that part of the show. Many critics have singled out the sequence in which Abigail Adams and the children are inoculated against smallpox as a particularly gritty portrayal of history.

There were actually two significant epidemics during the siege of Boston:

  • “The bloody flux,” a form of dysentery that Judy Cataldo wrote about back here. This disease reached Braintree in October 1775, making Abigail and her three-year-old Tommy sick. Her mother, Elizabeth Smith, and John’s younger brother Elihu Adams both died.
  • Smallpox, an untreatable, contagious disease with a death rate of close to 30% and a really scary rash.
The screenplay apparently combined these two diseases into something called “the bloody pox.”

After the winter of 1775-76, smallpox was the bigger worry for both armies and the civilian populations. Indeed, the epidemic eventually affected the whole continent, as Elizabeth Anne Fenn described in Pox Americana.

John Adams’s great-uncle, Dr. Zabdiel Boylston (1676 or ’79-1766), was the first American physician to try inoculating people against smallpox, provoking a huge controversy in 1720s Boston. The Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather supported him, citing advice from his enslaved man Onesimus. James and Benjamin Franklin attacked the practice in their newspaper. Because inoculation involved deliberately giving people (what everyone hoped was) a mild case of the disease, and those people remained contagious for a while, at first it seemed like a step backward in public health.

In 1730 Dr. Boylston published his results in London (as shown above, courtesy of the New York Academy of Medicine). He reported that although some patients had died after inoculation, their death rate was significantly smaller than that of people who caught the disease naturally. And the more smallpox survivors there were in a population, the less easily the disease could spread. By the middle of the 1700s, it was clear that inoculation saved lives. But it was still risky.

John had himself inoculated shortly before marrying. As a lawyer, he expected to travel and meet a lot of people, so he needed to protect himself. Abigail and the children were still vulnerable to smallpox in the summer of 1776, however. She decided to make arrangements for inoculation as she described to John in a letter dated 13 July:
I now date from Boston where I yesterday arrived and was with all 4 of our Little ones innoculated for the small pox. My unkle and Aunt [probably James and Elizabeth Cunningham] were so kind as to send me an invitation with my family.

Mr. [Richard] Cranch and wife [Abigail’s older sister, Mary] and family, My Sister Betsy and her Little Neice, Cotton Tufts [a cousin and physician] and Mr. [John] Thaxter [another cousin and tutor to the boys], a maid who has had the Distemper and my old Nurse compose our family. A Boy too I should have added. 17 in all. My unkles maid with his Little daughter and a Negro Man are here.

We had our Bedding &c. to bring. A Cow we have driven down from B[raintre]e and some Hay I have had put into the Stable, wood &c. and we have really commenced housekeepers here. The House was furnished with almost every article (except Beds) which we have free use of, and think ourselves much obliged by the fine accommodations and kind offer of our Friends. All our necessary Stores we purchase jointly.

Our Little ones stood the opperation Manfully. Dr. [Thomas] Bulfinch is our Physician. Such a Spirit of innoculation never before took place; the Town and every House in it, as are as full as they can hold. I believe there are not less than 30 persons from Braintree. Mrs. Quincy, Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Betsy and Nancy [okay, I’m giving up on the identifications] are our near Neighbours. God Grant that we may all go comfortably thro the Distemper, the phisick part is bad enough I know.

I knew your mind so perfectly upon the subject that I thought nothing, but our recovery would give you eaquel pleasure, and as to safety there was none. The Soldiers innoculated privately, so did many of the inhabitants and the paper curency spread it everywhere. I immediately determined to set myself about it, and get ready with my children. I wish it was so you could have been with us, but I submit.
The last paragraph reveals that Abigail had decided to go through with the treatment without waiting for a decision from John. As the war went on and their separations increased, she grew more comfortable making such decisions on her own. The whole family survived, as did most of their friends.

In the miniseries, Abigail and the Adams children undergo the inoculation and recovery at their home in Braintree without any servants, relatives, or neighbors in sight. A physician comes to their home with a poxy teenager in a wagon; that was the least realistic aspect for me. As the story of Dr. Gelston shows, towns were extremely edgy about confining and isolating people who might be infectious.

The actual inoculation process shown on screen—scraping pus from an infected person’s sores and inserting it into a cut on the inoculatee—was one of the cruder medical protocols of the time. Physicians also used ground-up scabs and threads dipped in pus to transmit the disease. They looked for infected people who seemed to have mild cases. According to an anonymous commenter on this posting, the series showed pus too thick to be from the early stage of the disease, and thus not contagious. I must confess that I don’t know my pus that well. But I commend the miniseries for including this unattractive but common aspect of eighteenth-century life, even within the confines of its budget.


Chris McNulty said...

Do you think it was solely the program's focus focus on John Adams that led its editors to exclude Washington's decision to inoculate his troops at Cambridge?

mc said...


Interesting read. I think when I mentioned the prison ships I may have been thinking of New York instead. Here is a Newday article mentioning the vessel "Jersey" in particular.


J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the miniseries is so tightly focused on the Adams family that we see practically nothing those characters don't see—even if, as in the Massacre and the Concord Alarm and the bringing of cannons from Fort Ticonderoga, the family didn’t actually see the events in question.

That ends up making the Adamses seem even more important than they actually were, and even more put upon than they sometimes felt. There was a vast inoculation effort in Massachusetts in 1776, both in the army and among civilians, but we see one family toughing it out all alone.

I think the tight focus on the Adams family was the result of both artistic decisions and budgetary limits. In this series we’re not going to see the equivalent of the shot in which the camera pulls back, back, back from Scarlett O’Hara and shows line after line of wounded men. I was a little worried last night that we wouldn’t even see the ocean on the ocean crossing, but the producers found some appropriate footage.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the Jersey anchored off New York was a horrible prison ship, and became a symbol of the suffering of all American P.O.W.’s during the war. I’ve got a couple of memoirs of men on that ship that I’ve been meaning to read, but I have to make sure I have a calm stomach first.

Chris McNulty said...

I was surprised they excluded JA's trek to meet Admiral Howe at NY along with Forrest Gump -- I'm sorry, Ben Franklin! (Although I keep expecting his script to lapse into "Independence is like a box of chocolates...")

I was hoping to see the open window/closed window schtick of the night JA and BF had to share a room on that trip in '76. Or the fact that JA wasn't on the Crown's list of patriots to be offered titled positions in the event of a settled peace.

J. L. Bell said...

The series also left out the embarrassing incident when some of John Adams’s letters home to Abigail and their friend James Warren were captured by the royal authorities and published. What he had written about John Dickinson in those letters certainly didn’t help their relationship in Congress.

While I think Wilkinson’s portrayal of Franklin is a caricature, by god it’s an entertaining one!

Fornya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. L. Bell said...

I agree that John and Abigail Adams’ experiences during the Revolutionary War and early republic are very dramatic. It’s possible to tell a lot of that history through them, though that necessitates leaving a lot out.

What has struck me in the making of this miniseries, especially in the first two installments, is that the producers apparently felt those experiences had to be supplemented with glimpses of events that the Adamses didn’t see themselves, by putting them or the events in places they weren’t.

In addition, as in the smallpox scenes, the production doesn’t depict people who we know were alongside the Adamses during their experiences, which creates a tighter focus on the little family but a less accurate picture of the past.

Anonymous said...

I saw the first two episodes the Sun. it started and I found myself dismayed by how inaccurate it was. I haven't watched it since and I'm telling everyone I know not to waste their time on it.

Anonymous said...

JL Bell wrote that the the series is too focused on the Adams'. Hello? It is a mini series based on the book...John Adams.


J. L. Bell said...

“JL Bell wrote that the the series is too focused on the Adams'.”

Actually, he didn’t.

William Beaton said...

As close a glimpse into history as is possible. Accuracy aside, it is only possible to tell a human story in a way humans will understand. The struggle to attain independence is also one of human frailties and fear of the unknown. It is easy to look on and know what must be done, but not so easy to know when one is subject to the storm.

J. L. Bell said...

A dramatization of the Revolutionary period focused tightly on the Adamses' experiences could be quite dramatic, but it would leave out events they didn't experience, such as Henry Knox bringing cannon from Lake Champlain. It would also include events that meant a lot to them but not to the rest of the country, such as when royal authorities captured and published a couple of John's letters in 1775. Instead, the makers of this miniseries chose to depict many major events as if the Adams family witnesses them firsthand.