Interesting US History

How George Washington Saved the Country from Two Pandemics


It’s amazing to see how deadly a virus can be when our leaders don’t have the slightest respect for science. With knowledge and lessons on history available in a handy device we keep in our pockets, you might think that our political leaders would know how to react in the event of a global pandemic. Sadly, as the last year has shown us, this isn’t always the case.

But if you go back to the 1700s when George Washington was still around, you might be impressed to learn that a man without any formal education could save an entire nation from smallpox. In fact, he did it again when the yellow fever was plaguing our neighbors to the south.

During the American Revolution, all of North America was under attack by an invisible enemy.

Smallpox Outbreak

The smallpox outbreak first grabbed hold on the continent in 1774, with patient zero originating in Boston. By mid-1774, soldiers who fought and returned from the area began showing symptoms. Fearing that the British had somehow smuggled infected men among the returning troops, Washington had to act swiftly to prevent further spread.

Two alternatives were presented to Washington. First, quarantine the infected to prevent further spread. However, this would prove to be impossible for soldiers constantly on the move. The second alternative was to inoculate his soldiers in their home states and under the supervision of medical experts. This, too, was out of the question since they were in the middle of a war and short on time.

Taking Action

Washington decided that on-site inoculation would do the trick. Under his supervision, the inoculation process began. The troops began showing milder symptoms of smallpox, which, over time, would dissipate and leave them nearly immune to the disease.

With his soldiers weakened and in no state to march—let alone fight—Washington made sure to keep this makeshift vaccination process on the down-low. If word spread to the British army that Washington’s soldiers were currently incapacitated, the entire regiment could have succumbed to a surprise attack.

Yellow Fever Outbreak

Ten years after the end of the American Revolution, Washington faced, yet again, another outbreak. The Yellow Fever outbreak struck Philadelphia in 1793 and was still a medical mystery. The first phase of symptoms was similar to the common fever—aches, chills, and vomiting. However, the second, deadlier wave would cause the patient to vomit blood and contract jaundice.

Except for the symptoms and knowing that Yellow Fever spread through mosquitoes, the president was at a loss. Most of his political peers had already abandoned Philadelphia and made their way towards safer lands. In the winter, the disease had disappeared from the capital city.