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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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

“Thereby prevent Inoculation amongst them”

On 25 May 1776, the New York provincial congress sent Gen. George Washington its report about Continental Army officers undergoing inoculation against smallpox.

The congress’s inquiry was instigated by information from Dr. Isaac Foster of the army, acting on orders from Gen. Israel Putnam, so Washington was probably already aware of the basics. But he deferred to the civil government on how to deal with the inoculator, Dr. Azor Betts.

Both the Patriot government and the commander-in-chief had issued orders against such inoculation. They didn’t fear the treatment absolutely. Rather, they worried that unregulated inoculations could end up spreading the disease or weakening the army just as the British military might reappear.

Washington responded to the New York government’s concerns by inserting that report into his general orders for the next day, followed by his own public messages:
The General presents his Compliments to the Honorable The Provincial Congress, and General Committee, is much obliged to them, for their care, in endeavouring to prevent the spreading of the Small-pox (by Inoculation or any other way) in this City, or in the Continental Army, which might prove fatal to the army, if allowed of, at this critical time, when there is reason to expect they may soon be called to action; and orders that the Officers take the strictest care, to examine into the state of their respective Corps, and thereby prevent Inoculation amongst them; which, if any Soldier should presume upon, he must expect the severest punishment.

Any Officer in the Continental Army, who shall suffer himself to be inoculated, will be cashiered and turned out of the army, and have his name published in the News papers throughout the Continent, as an Enemy and Traitor to his country.

Upon the first appearance of any eruption, the Officer discovering of it in any Soldiers, is to give information to the regimental Surgeon, and the Surgeon make report of the same, to the Director General of the hospital.
That certainly sounds tough. But so far as I can tell, it was mostly for show.

As I described back here, none of the officers found to have gotten inoculated appear to have been punished. Nor are there more penalties noted in the general orders. No names were “published in the News papers throughout the Continent.”

What’s more, in the very same period that Gen. Washington was issuing these orders, his wife Martha was being inoculated for smallpox in Philadelphia. Early the next month he wrote to his brother:
Mrs Washington is now under Innoculation in this City; & will, I expect, have the Small pox favourably—this is the 13th day, and she has very few Pustules—she would have wrote to my Sister but thought it prudent not to do so, notwithstanding there could be but little danger in conveying the Infection in this Manner.
Again, it wasn’t the inoculation process that Washington feared. It was the possible side effects, medical and social. The general didn’t want to risk adverse public opinion—hence the very loud and stern reply to the provincial congress.

But Washington couldn’t smother the epidemic. On 2 June, Gen. John Thomas died of smallpox near Chambly in Canada. Despite being a doctor, he had never contracted the disease or been inoculated against it. Many other men in the northern Continental Army were also ill or dying, destroying the Americans’ only chance to take Canada before Britain sent reinforcements.

This small controversy over inoculation in New York in May 1776 showed how men in the Continental Army were pushing back against the official non-inoculation policy. They understood that isolation and hoping for the best wasn’t going to work. In early 1777 Gen. Washington finally came around to a new strategy for protecting his army from smallpox; that story will be part of Andrew Wehrman’s upcoming book The Contagion of Liberty.


Les Haskell said...

Apparently, General Howe had a greater appreciation of Dr. Betts' experience with smallpox inoculation than did General Washington. It seems that after the British arrived at New York, Dr. Betts was appointed Surgeon in the Queen's Rangers, and then after recruiting for the King's Rangers for a while, James DeLancey personally requested his services at the Morrisianna garrison in the Bronx.

After emigrating in 1783 to what would later become New Brunswick, Dr. Betts continued his practice, and set up isolation wards for smallpox patients. When the smallpox vaccine became available, he provided it at no charge.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I related Dr. Betts’s life in British-held New York City and Nova Scotia in the previous day’s posting.