Skip to main content

Military Health System

Gen. George Washington Ordered Smallpox Inoculations for All Troops

Image of Old photo of George Washington in battle. George Washington rallies his troops at the Battle of Monmouth in a painting by Emanuel Leutze, 1857 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Recommended Content:

Our History | Immunizations

In late 1776, as Gen. George Washington led his troops through the opening battles of the American Revolution, it was not necessarily the enemy fighters who posed the biggest risk to the fledgling U.S. Army.

An estimated 90% of deaths in the Continental Army were caused by disease, and the most vicious were variants of smallpox, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.

That's why Gen. Washington made the controversial decision to order the mass inoculation of his soldiers, an effort to combat spread of the disease that was at the time a major deterrent to enlistments and posed the risk of debilitating his army and tipping the balance of power against America's first warfighters.

According to the U.S. Library of Congress's Science, Technology, and Business Division, the smallpox inoculations began Jan. 6, 1777, for all of Washington's forces who came through the then-capital of Philadelphia, and through Morristown, New Jersey, following the Battle of Princeton.

Smallpox is a potentially fatal disease that starts with fever and vomiting and an outbreak of ulcers in the mouth and a skin rash. The skin rash turns into highly contagious fluid-filled blisters. The fatality rate was very high.

Inoculations were far more primitive - and dangerous - than today's vaccinations. The most common method was to cut a person's skin and rub the minor incision with a thread or cloth contaminated with a less-virulent version of smallpox, which in this case was a strain known as "variola."

At the time, most English troops were immune to variola, and their immunity gave them an "enormous advantage against the vulnerable colonists," according to the library. By contrast, less than a quarter of the American colonial troops had ever had the virus.

Washington knew a mass inoculation campaign could backfire and might cause more disease than it prevented. He also feared the mandatory inoculations would harm recruitment.

Nevertheless, after weighing the odds, Washington informed Congress on Feb. 5, 1777, of his plans for a mass inoculation. The general's plans contraindicated a 1776 proclamation by the Continental Congress prohibiting inoculations.

A Feb. 6 letter to Dr. William Shippen from Washington states: "Finding the smallpox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our Army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated. This expedient may be attended with some inconvenience and some disadvantages but yet I trust its consequences will have the most happy effects. Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with its usual virulence, we have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy."

Throughout February, the inoculations across the entire force were carried out in the model of the initial efforts in Morristown and Philadelphia.

Washington's strategy was largely successful.

"The isolated infections that sprung up among Continental regulars during the southern campaign failed to incapacitate a single regiment," the Library reported.

You can read more on the first mass military inoculation at the Library of Congress's Science section.

You also may be interested in...

MHS and MOS Town Hall: Virtual Tour

Article
7/27/2021
Infographic for the Town Hall

MHS and Military OneSource To Your Health presents a virtual Field Trip to The National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Recommended Content:

Our History | National Museum of Health and Medicine

MHS and MOS Town Hall Virtual Tour

Video
7/27/2021
MHS and MOS Town Hall Virtual Tour

MHS and Military OneSource To Your Health presents a virtual field trip to The National Museum of Health and Medicine.

Recommended Content:

Our History | National Museum of Health and Medicine

30 Years after Desert Storm, Military Medicine Evolving ‘Phenomenally’

Article
6/9/2021
Military health personnel surrounding an operating table

Thirty years after the Persian Gulf War, technical advances in military medicine are saving lives and improving post-trauma quality of life.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Paving the way for women in military medicine: Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Article
3/26/2021
Old picture of Dr. Mary Edwards wearing her Medal of Honor

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker’s persistence and disregard for societal norms was central to the role that women can play in the DOD and MHS today.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Military Health Medal of Honor Recipients | Women's Health

Flu Symptoms

Infographic
3/8/2021
Flu Symptoms

Symptoms of the flu

Recommended Content:

Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Symptoms of Flu | Immunizations

Getting the Flu Vaccine - Active Duty Service Members

Infographic
3/8/2021
Getting the Flu Vaccine - Active Duty Service Members

Details for active duty service members for getting the flu vaccine.

Recommended Content:

Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Get the Flu Vaccine | Immunizations

Symptoms of the Flu

Infographic
3/8/2021
Symptoms of the Flu

.gif that outlines the symptoms of the flu

Recommended Content:

Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Symptoms of Flu | Immunizations

Getting the Flu Vaccine - All Beneficiaries

Infographic
3/8/2021
Getting the Flu Vaccine - All Beneficiaries

Options for getting the flu vaccine for all TRICARE beneficiaries

Recommended Content:

Get the Flu Vaccine | Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Immunizations

Preventing the Flu

Infographic
3/8/2021
Preventing the Flu

Infographic that explains how to prevent the flu.

Recommended Content:

Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Prevent the Flu | Immunizations

Take Action Against the Flu

Infographic
3/8/2021
Take Action Against the Flu

Recommended Content:

Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Prevent the Flu | Immunizations

Who Should Get the Flu Vaccine?

Infographic
3/8/2021
Who Should Get the Flu Vaccine?

Flu shot Infographic01

Recommended Content:

Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Get the Flu Vaccine | Immunizations

Is it the Cold or the Flu?

Infographic
3/8/2021
Is it the Cold or the Flu?

comparison of flu and cold symptoms

Recommended Content:

Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Toolkit | Symptoms of Flu | Immunizations

Trained military personnel ready to help with COVID-19 vaccinations

Article
2/23/2021
Military health personnel wearing a mask giving the COVID-19 vaccine to a man who is also wearing a face mask

Military prepped and ready to help with civilian COVID-19 mass vaccinations

Recommended Content:

Coronavirus & the MHS Response | COVID-19 Vaccine Efforts | Immunizations

USU cohort study investigates COVID-19 impacts on DOD personnel

Article
2/18/2021
Military health personnel wearing a mask and a face shield holding up a sign that has the number eighteen on it

USU is conducting a study to better understand the symptoms and course of COVID-19 disease and identify risk factors in the military population.

Recommended Content:

Immunizations | COVID-19 Vaccine Efforts | Coronavirus & the MHS Response

National Army museum honors America’s Soldiers

Article
11/13/2020

The museum is a joint U.S. Army-Army Historical Foundation construction effort.

Recommended Content:

Our History
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 46 - 60 Page 4 of 7
Refine your search
Last Updated: January 25, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery