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Did George Washington Require Soldiers to Be Vaccinated in 1777?

The answer is yes, though what we call a “vaccine” didn’t exist in 1777. Instead, people protected themselves from the deadly smallpox virus by inhaling crushed smallpox scabs (gross!) or having their skin scraped with someone else’s smallpox pus (grosser!). The practice was controversial, as you can imagine, but in 1777, rising cases in his Continental Army made Washington fear that smallpox would “rage with its virulence” to the point where “we should have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy.”

Thus began the first military inoculation program in history.

He ordered all new recruits to be inoculated, and by the end of the year 40,000 soldiers were protected.

You might ask: didn’t British soldiers get smallpox, too? Yes, they did. But they did so back home, long before their arrival in America. Smallpox was endemic in England. Most everyone got exposed to it in youth. About one in five died from it. But, the bright side was that if you survived, you were immune for life. Most of those soldiers who traveled across the Atlantic to fight the colonists had acquired a natural immunity to the disease.

In sparsely-populated rural America, however, you could grow up and live a long life without ever being exposed. Only big events like the Revolutionary War brought these formerly isolated American populations together, forming a fresh human Petri dish for circulating a novel virus.

Eventually, English doctor Edward Jenner would develop a true vaccine for the disease, formulated from a less virulent microbe called cowpox. The word “vaccine,” indeed, comes from the Latin word vacca for “cow.” The story goes that Jenner noticed how milkmaids typically boasted “peaches and cream” complexions, rarely pockmarked with smallpox scars like everyone else.

Women (and men) who regularly milked cows all contracted cowpox, which usually resulted in some mild hand-scarring. But they hardly ever got smallpox. Jenner guessed that if he exposed people to cowpox it would protect people from its deadlier cousin.

Jenner was right. The vaccine worked. But that didn’t stop an anti-vaccine movement from rising in Britain. Today’s anti-vaxxers have a lineage as old as the vaccination itself.

The first anti-vaxxers: In this 1802 cartoon, James Gillray depicts people sprouting cow parts and features after being given the new cowpox vaccine. (“The cow-pock,-or-The wonderful effects of the new inoculation! – Vide – the Publications of ye Anti-Vaccine Society, 1802)

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