Having spent nearly two years in hospitals with polio as a child, I am incredibly grateful that by the time my own children came along, pediatricians automatically provided the polio vaccine

I can still remember the fear infantile paralysis brought to American parents each summer. Everyone avoided crowds and public places for swimming and movie theaters were forbidden. We all knew President Roosevelt was a polio survivor and filled small boxes for the March of Dimes.

I also recall that many people refused Salk’s polio vaccine when it finally became available. I could not understand their reluctance because I had several friends with braces on both legs and one trapped forever in an iron lung. When will we learn the lessons of history?

Back in 1721, outraged anti-vaxxers threw a grenade through the window of Cotton Mather’s Boston home in angry opposition to that minister’s campaign to inoculate citizens from smallpox during an epidemic. Onesimus, Rev. Mather’s West African slave, told his master that he knew how to prevent the dread disease. He explained how immunity developed within the body after pus from an infected person was placed into a small cut made on a healthy person’s arm. This practice was being used in China and Turkey at the time.

Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, a local physician, believed this unpopular treatment heralded an end to smallpox epidemics that brought death and disfigurement. Yet many citizens would have none of it! The note attached to the grenade that broke the parsonage window read, “Cotton Mather, you dog. Dam you. I’ll inoculate you with this bomb with a Pox to you.”

Smallpox epidemics were not uncommon in the port city of Boston with the virus arriving on ships. Eight hundred and forty-four perished during this particular outbreak – 14% of the city’s population. Of the 242 citizens inoculated by Dr. Boylston, including his own son, only six died.


Visiting Barbados at age 19, George Washington survived a case of smallpox, although his older brother, Lawrence, died of it. In 1776, with the Revolutionary War raging, Boston and Philadelphia suffered another epidemic. In 1777, General Washington, leader of the Continental Army, wrote they “had more to dread from smallpox than from the sword of the enemy.” America’s future first president mandated inoculation for all his troops as soon as they joined the military and 40,000 were inoculated. Washington ordered those with the disease quarantined in a special hospital “in order to continue the utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”

Washington considered smallpox a public health emergency and saw inoculation as his public duty. On Feb. 5, 1777, he wrote John Hancock of the Continental Congress, “I have determined not only to inoculate all troops that have not had it, but shall order Doctor Shippen to inoculate the recruits as fast as they come into Philadelphia.” Secrecy was imperative, for if the British enemy learned that many freedom fighters were ill with smallpox, it would mark the end of the struggle for independence.

During that terrible winter at Valley Forge, General Washington was distressed to find many soldiers unvaccinated. “Notwithstanding orders given last year to have all Recruits inoculated, I found that between three and four thousand men had not had the Small Pox. That disorder began to make its appearance in Camp and to avoid its spreading in the natural way, the whole we immediately inoculated.”

It was not until 1796 that Edward Jenner developed a vaccine using cowpox to develop smallpox immunity and this treatment became mandatory in Massachusetts. In 1980, the World Heath Organization declared smallpox eradicated due to worldwide immunization.

Civilizations rise and fall on such issues as health and politics that result in positive or negative changes in human behavior.

Juliet H. Mofford is an author and historical researcher from Bath. 

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