Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: September 15, 2010

"Innoculation and the Revolutionary War," Tony Williams

On Wednesday, September 15, 2010 the American Revolutionary Roundtable was privileged to hear Tony Williams speak about "Inoculation and the Revolutionary War." Tony has authored The Pox and the Covenant and The Hurricane of Independence.

Bruce Venter, the vice president of programs introduced Tony Williams and indicated that Tony was last with us in March of 2009 talking about the Hurricane of Independence.

Mr. Williams went to Syracuse University and Ohio State and is now living and teaching in Williamsburg. His second book, The Pox and the Covenant, is a featured selection for the history book club and is of course listed at

First of all, Mr. Williams wrote a little bit of how and why he seems to be drawn to "national disasters" in his writings.

In any event, in 1721, a convoy coming up from Barbados had on board an African sailor who had contracted smallpox. He didn’t have any symptoms right away and so went onshore in Boston and was shaking hands, etc. with everyone. Once the pox took hold, it quickly spread around the entire town.

It's interesting that a well-known individual stepped into the fray as a doctor because he'd studied medicine at Harvard. This person is known to us well as Cotton Mather. He had talked to one of his slaves and found out from his experience that sometimes if an incision is cut and one had been touched with live pox, then the symptoms would become milder.

Cotton Mather was vain and assumed people would follow his lead. He was met, though, with stony silence from the other doctors. Finally, a certain Dr. Boilston tested the theory out on his own 6-year-old son and two slaves as well (both father and son). One of the questions was, of course, why are you giving someone the pox when you're trying to avoid it?

Also, in 1761 the Virginia House of Burgesses outlawed this idea of inoculation. George Washington waivered on the idea but did not order inoculation. But it was clear that the British had a lower incidence of smallpox. In London, they had a lot of it there so it may have been that people survived and thus in effect were inoculated about it. But the American-born Tories did not have that same type of protection.

Benedict Arnold in Quebec allowed inoculation but did not order inoculation.

Finally in Philadelphia Benjamin Rush started inoculating the delegates and even inoculated Patrick Henry. Obviously a lot of people remember the John Adams miniseries and Abigail's inoculation of young Quincy.