African slave, Onesimus, smallpox inoculation, Zabdiel Boylston

Smallpox Attacks 18th Century Boston; George Washington Risks Inoculating Troops

Wails and delirium of the dying and the putrid stench of smallpox seep from the windows and billow from the doors. They flood the streets of Boston and rise to fill the spaces between the living.

Leeching or bleeding the patient do nothing to block death’s invasion. Fear has the city in its vise.

Every dozen years or so, the epidemic returns. It’s always the same.

And how will it effect America’s War of Independence?


Boston minister Cotton Mather owns an African slave he calls Onesimus. Mather asks him whether his people suffer from smallpox.

No. Back home in West Africa, they know how to protect themselves. Those who are brave enough to submit to the operation do not die from the spotted disease.

Onesimus knows something the white man doesn’t. And what’s more, it’s something of critical importance to the white man. Onesimus proudly shows his scar—smallpox inoculation.

Engrafting live virus from a smallpox patient under the skin of a healthy person? Giving a light attack of the disease to create immunity? Hmm. It seems we’ve heard about inoculation/variolation before.


Onesimus shared his knowledge with Cotton Mather at about the same time British aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1717 discovered the practice among the Turks in Constantinople. (See a brief history in my two previous posts.)

Lady Montagu, British Aristocrat, Feminist, Smallpox Fighter and Public Health Heroine

Inoculation Proves its Worth; Mozart Gets Smallpox as Dad Says No

So inoculation in similar fashion was present in at least West Africa and the Ottoman Empire, and in China they were grinding smallpox scabs and blowing the infected powder up a person’s nose to induce a light case.

(Note: These early means of inoculation/variolation are not to be confused with vaccination. The first puts live smallpox virus into the body to create immunity by producing a mild attack of the disease. Vaccination, which hadn’t yet been discovered, puts no smallpox virus into the body. It inserts cowpox virus just under the skin and confers cross-immunity to smallpox. A person cannot get smallpox from the vaccine. Reactions and severe side effects to the cowpox vaccine are possible but rare.)


Inoculation met with strong objections in Boston, as it initially had in England. The bold Lady Mary had secured the help of a courageous doctor, and Cotton Mather did the same.

Enter Dr. Zabdiel Boylston.

In Boston, as Cotton Mather and Dr. Boylston girded for the fight against smallpox, the good doctor conducted an experiment. He inoculated 300 people. Only 6 died. While just as tragic for the six and for their families, the odds were far better than the alternative.

Inoculation gradually gained hard-won acceptance in the colonies during the 1700s as the numbers told the tale.

Typical odds:

Deaths in cases of naturally acquired smallpox:                                   1 in 3

Deaths from inoculation with smallpox:                                                 1 or 2 in 100


Deaths from the vaccine (once vaccine is later developed):                1 or 2 in 1,000,000



Painting of George Washington on his white horse in front of the American troops
Courtesy Library of Congress



It was December 31, 1775. Smallpox had already greatly prolonged The Siege of Boston, and now the battle for Quebec was raging. American troops outnumbered the British, but victory was not to be. Smallpox had so weakened the American troops they could not sustain the attack.

In one sense, you could say smallpox decided the northern border of what would become the United States of America.

So Canada sings “God Save the Queen” and not “The Star Spangled Banner.”



There might be no border and we might also be singing “God Save the Queen” except for General Washington’s risky decision.


Courtesy Library of Congress

In the early battles of the Revolutionary War, British troops had had an important advantage. Most of them had been inoculated/variolated against smallpox. American troops had not.

General Washington deliberated for more than a year. Finally, on February 5, 1777, he gave the order to inoculate all American troops.

No wonder he hesitated so long. Inoculation, which produced a, hopefully light, case of smallpox, carried much greater risk where smallpox outbreaks had been sporadic, meaning the population had much lower immunity.

And if the British discovered the truth, they would attack while all the troops were sick. Washington’s decision could have spelled disaster. Medical disaster. Military disaster.

And professional disaster for the general.

Guns and Germs

But the gamble paid off. By the time the British got wind of the situation, the American troops had recovered. And the two armies had approximately equal immunity levels.

Historians say George Washington’s decision to inoculate may have been his most important tactical decision in the War of Independence.

* * * * *

Do you have any idea how close Abraham Lincoln came to not giving the Gettysburg Address? Stay tuned.

World Health Organization smallpox eradication medallion,
Medallion presented to my husband Carl for his part in eradicating smallpox

Thanks for visiting my blog. I hope you learn something you didn’t know before.

To see photos and memorabilia from our family’s involvement in the eradication program, and to see excerpts from my upcoming memoir, visit the other pages of this website.

And while you’re there, to keep abreast of my journey as I search for just the right publisher, you can sign up to follow me.

Vaccines & Bayonets: Fighting Smallpox in Africa amid Tribalism, Terror and the Cold War


For the history of the brave inoculation pioneers I’ve talked about in my most recent posts, I highly recommend Jennifer Lee Carrell’s The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox. If you’re interested in an extensive account by a true researcher and a great storyteller, you time will be richly rewarded.

The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox

2 thoughts on “Smallpox Attacks 18th Century Boston; George Washington Risks Inoculating Troops

  1. Thanks for your comments, irenemchugh. Finding little-known facts like the George Washington decision is a fun aspect of research.

  2. Interesting statistics on the difference between inoculation and vaccination in combating small pox. And how people progressed in their more positive reaction to inoculation. I had no idea that George Washington gave the order to inoculate the Revolutionary troops against small pox. The world certainly could have been different if he had not taken that bold step.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s