Did George Washington enforce a mandatory smallpox vaccine?

Olivia Olphin September 7, 2021
Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images

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Let’s break down the smallpox vaccine mandate enforced by George Washington in the late 1700s in this small piece of pandemic history.

Vaccines and mass vaccinations have become a hot-topic in the US over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. However, after a tweet shared by Rep. Jim Jordan from Ohio, Twitter has been curious if there has ever been a mass vaccination effort in the country before.

Tweet starts George Washington vaccine speculation

Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio’s fourth district recently posted a strongly-worded tweet about his feelings on mandatory vaccination in the US, which proved a divisive force on the platform.

This has sparked many Twitter users to wonder whether America has ever had a mass vaccination effort before.

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As a result, many users were surprised to discover that one of the founding fathers of the United States, and the country’s first president, George Washington actually made smallpox vaccines mandatory for army personnel during the American War Of Independence.

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Did George Washington make the smallpox vaccine mandatory for his troops?

George Washington introduced the first mass vaccination effort of a large group of people in the US with the smallpox immunisation effort.

In 1775 Washington took charge of the Continental Army during the American War Of Independence. However, Britain was not the only enemy of America: smallpox was also laying waste to the country’s army, killing and maiming otherwise healthy, young soldiers.

In fact, it was estimated that in 1775 more that half of the country’s Continental Army had smallpox.

If George Washington wanted his army to remain fit and healthy he needed to stop the spread of the highly contagious smallpox virus. This is when he made the decision to vaccinate all American military personnel and troops who had not yet encountered smallpox. This was the US’s first state-funded vaccination, or immunisation, effort.

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However, the method of vaccination in the late 1700s was very different from how we administer vaccines today. George Washington’s army were immunised through variolation, which is when you infect a patient with the pustules or crusts of those with a mild form of smallpox, either through scratching the, erm, infected material into your arm or inhaling it through the nose.

This was a way of allowing the disease to occur in a milder, less dangerous form, well before traditional vaccination became a thing. Variolation killed on average 2% of people whereas smallpox had a death rate of about 16%, and Washington made the decision that this posed the greater risk than innoculation.

What is smallpox and who created the vaccine?

In the mid to late 1700s smallpox was one of the deadliest diseases that a person could contract. European settlers brought the disease over to North America when they founded the first colonies in the 17th century.

However, historians have even found smallpox-like rashes on Egyptian mummies, which suggests that the disease has existed for at least 3,000 years.

The main symptoms included a fever, body aches, vomiting, rashes, sores and pustules. This virus was incredibly deadly, as 3 in 10 people who contracted it died from the disease, while others were left with severe scarring and maiming.

A smallpox vaccine was first introduced by English doctor Sir Edward Jenner in 1796, and was the first successful vaccine to be officially developed and deployed on a large scale.

While George Washington used the variolation method in 1777 to innoculate his troops, this is still considered to be America’s first mass immunisation effort to control the spread of a deadly virus.

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Olivia Olphin is an English Literature graduate and a film and literature fanatic. She has many years of reviewing experience, recently working as accredited press for the London Film Festival. She has also written widely about culture and sex education, as well as LGBTQ+ and women's issues.