Editor's Soapbox

Did you ever hear about how America almost lost the Revolutionary War because of a pandemic? 

Smallpox is a terrible disease. The smallpox virus could spread through the air or droplets, and it would cause fever, then lesions and blisters would break out on the skin. The immune response would go haywire. Organs and systems would begin to shut down.

There were two variants of the virus. For one, the death rate was about 1%. For the other, the death rate was 30%.

If you have a strong stomach, you can find some good articles about smallpox on the internet. I say ‘strong stomach,’ because the pictures are nightmarish. 

George Washington himself contracted smallpox in 1751 as a teenager. After nearly a month of sickness, he survived. He knew many others who did not. He now had a pockmarked face. But he also knew what smallpox could do, and used that knowledge when it mattered.

Smallpox broke out in 1775 in North America, possibly carried by invading British soldiers. As it began to rage through the colonies, the dangers rose for the poor Continental Army, who were undersupplied, underfed and living in close quarters. It is said that 90% of the deaths for the American army in the Revolutionary War were caused by disease, and smallpox was the worst.

Washington knew that his army was susceptible to smallpox.  In the invading British army, a large percentage had already recovered from the disease as children, or been inoculated and made immune. The Americans were not. In fact, the Americans likely lost the Battle of Quebec because they were too weakened by a smallpox outbreak among their troops. 

So Washington had to do something. And he decided on variolation, an early and crude form of inoculation, which was meant to give his soldiers a mild case of smallpox. And he gave it to every soldier who had not already recovered from smallpox.

Feel free to look up “variolation” too. Not for the squeamish. 

But it worked. Though the smallpox epidemic continued to rage, causing the deaths of tens of thousands across the continent, Washington’s soldiers became immune to smallpox, and were able to fight when they needed to. And after eight long years of war, America won her freedom. 

The world’s very first vaccine was developed for smallpox in 1798. However, smallpox outbreaks continued around the world – though so did medicine’s war against it. 

Here’s an interesting fact. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1905, in the Jacobson v. Massachusetts case, that compulsory vaccination during a smallpox outbreak was legal. 

Let me be clear: I don’t think this ought to or needs to happen during our current pandemic. We have other measures in place that are working. 

But I think it’s worth reading what the Supreme Court had to say about the issue in 1905. The court wrote:

“The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint... Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy. Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty], whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”

You don’t hear much about smallpox anymore. That is because it was methodically stamped out by those scientists and medical professionals, working decade after decade to kill it off – and because people chose to get themselves and their families vaccinated. 

The last case was found in 1977. The disease was considered eradicated in 1979. 

We don’t have to live in fear from a virus. We just have to be willing to do what is necessary to end it. 

Mike Gainor is the editor of the Pine City Pioneer. Contact him at editor@pinecitymn.com or 320-322-5241.

Editor’s note: I relied on the following sources for this column. Many thanks to these writers for sharing their work. 

• Public Health Practices in the Colonial and Federalist Periods: https://academic.udayton.edu/health/syllabi/bioterrorism/4phealthlaw/PHLaw00c.htm

• North American smallpox epidemic 1775-82: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1775–1782_North_American_smallpox_epidemic

• Supreme Court - Jacobson v. Massachusetts:  https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/197/11

• George Washington and the First Mass Military Inoculation:  https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/GW&smallpoxinoculation.html

• How Crude Smallpox Inoculations Helped George Washington Win the War: https://www.history.com/news/smallpox-george-washington-revolutionary-war

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