1. Smallpox in the Revolution

In 1777, George Washington ordered that every soldier in the Continental army who had not already had smallpox be inoculated against the disease—by introducing a small amount of the pus from a recuperating victim through a cut in the skin. This scourge was rampant in the colonies as well as Europe, and had decimated the American force that invaded Canada in 1775. (The army’s commander-in-chief endured a mild version as a young man, which may have accounted for his sterility.) Some historians say this effort—America’s first major public health initiative—was Washington’s most unheralded contribution to winning the War of Independence. According to Michael Stephenson in Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence Was Fought (HarperCoilins Publishers, 2007), “It would save his army.” In fact, one might say it gave the rebellion (ahem) a shot in the arm.

So our quest for independence led to a revolutionary development in public health, no less than in the political status of the thirteen colonies. Today, as we confront the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime, it’s worth remembering how important the army’s conquest of a deadly disease was to America’s struggle for the right to rule itself—and that Washington’s judicious leadership on this issue was essential to achieving that outcome.