During the Revolutionary War more than 130,000 people living in North America died from Smallpox. Of those fighting in the war, about 7000 died in the war, while more than 17,000 died from disease. And smallpox was the biggest killer on the continent.
Variola virus, or smallpox is spread through physical contact, airborne through breathing droplets from an infected person, or through bodily fluids. About 30% of the people who got smallpox died from it. The disease was declared eradicated in 1980.
During the Revolutionary War soldiers would deliberately infect themselves with a small amount of the virus on their skin as a crude form of self-inoculation. They would become sick but nowhere near as sick as others who got the disease through normal transmission. It’s a terrifying gamble to infect yourself with a disease that kills 1/3 of the people who contracted it. There was also significant debate within the colonial army about the wisdom of inoculation. Major General John Thomas threatened his troops in the Northern Army with the death penalty they were found to have inoculated themselves. There’s some tragic irony in Thomas succumbing to smallpox himself within weeks of his order.
Once you had smallpox (and of course, survived) you were immune to it. There was speculation that the British army, who were largely immune to it from dealing with outbreaks at home, deliberately introduced smallpox to the colonies as a form of chemical warfare. As horrific as this sounds, it’s not entirely farfetched. After all, Jeffrey Amherst had done just that to the Native American population approving smallpox-infected blankets being given as gifts to Chief Pontiac and his Ottawa Indians during the French and Indian War just a decade earlier.
George Washington was well aware of the threat posed by smallpox, and increasingly looked to inoculation as a way to save his army from being decimated by the disease:
“In February 1777, while encamped at Morristown, Washington became convinced that only inoculation would prevent the destruction of his Army. Emphasizing the need for secrecy and speed, Washington ordered the inoculation of all troops. Because Virginia forbade inoculation, Washington asked Governor Patrick Henry to support the program, writing that smallpox “is more destructive to an Army in the Natural way, than the Enemy’s Sword.”
In the end, the gamble paid off. Fewer than 1% of the Soldiers died from being inoculated, and the program was so successful in controlling smallpox that he repeated it in the Valley Forge winter of 1778.” – Army Heritage Center
For people who complain about living in the times we live in, I’d point them straight at smallpox as an example of how much better off we are today than we were years ago. Advancements in healthcare have completely transformed our lives for the better. Longer lifespans for sure, but also a better overall quality of life without the threat of smallpox, polio and other horrific diseases.