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George Washington’s Smallpox Inoculation Orders on Display August 16

Tue, 08/09/2011

Eighteenth-Century Epidemic “More to dread… than from the Sword of the Enemy”

For Immediate Release
August 9, 2011
Digital image available

Media Contact:
Melissa Wood (703) 799-5203
mwood@mountvernon.org

George Washington’s Smallpox Inoculation Orders on Display August 16

Mount Vernon, VA – General Washington faced many challenges during the spring of 1777 while encamped in Morristown. Low in troop numbers, Washington could foresee a potential disaster that did not involve the British army – smallpox was spreading at an alarming rate. The General took quick, decisive action that ultimately saved the Continental Army. On display August 16 through January 8, 2012 in Mount Vernon’s Donald W. Reynolds Museum, is a one-page manuscript ordering the inoculation of troops, written in the hand of a young but trusted aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton, and includes Washington’s distinctive signature. This letter serves as a reminder of George Washington’s remarkable foresight and efforts to control a seemingly uncontrollable situation. The letter, a valuable resource in Mount Vernon’s collection, was purchased at auction with funds provided by the Mount Vernon Licensing Fund, which consists of royalty revenue from Mount Vernon licensees.

 “Today’s visitors to Mount Vernon are likely to be more aware of General Washington’s military setbacks and triumphs than of his masterful handling of such seemingly mundane details as transportation, providing food and supplies, and avoiding disease,” said Mount Vernon curator Susan Schoelwer. “This letter provides compelling testimony to Washington’s awareness of medical advances, his concern for his men, and his far-sighted leadership.”

The letter is a brief but strongly-worded order from the commander-in-chief demanding that one of his regimental colonels gather all of his men and divide them into two distinct groups:  those who had been inoculated for smallpox or had survived the disease were to be sent to join the main army at Morristown and those who were still susceptible were to be sent to Philadelphia to be inoculated without delay. Similar letters were sent to other colonels who commanded regiments.

Washington believed that the army would be weakened by this illness, so he inoculated new recruits to ensure fewer deaths and a quicker rate of recovery.  This reduced the rate of deaths caused by smallpox from 17% to 1%. Washington’s careful handling of the smallpox epidemic at the beginning of the war was a significant reason for the disease not decimating his army.

Having contracted smallpox in 1751 while in Barbados with his half-brother, Washington described smallpox as a greater threat “than…the Sword of the Enemy”.  It left the young Washington with some slight scarring on his cheeks and nose, but it also gave him immunity.

Washington arranged for his stepson John Parke Custis to be inoculated in 1771, Martha Washington was inoculated in 1776, and many additional family members followed suit. Washington was such a strong believer that he paid for the inoculation of Mount Vernon slaves.

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