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This Day in History: Were the British engaged in an early form of biological warfare?

On this day in 1775, Americans hear a report that British General William Howe is working to spread smallpox among their ranks. Was it an early form of biological warfare?


Smallpox was a major problem during the American Revolution. The Army Heritage Center Foundation explains: “Because smallpox was common in England, most British soldiers had already been exposed and were immune, but the disease was less common in America and the average Continental Soldier was not.” Interestingly, George Washington was an exception to this general rule of American vulnerability. He’d caught smallpox as a young man when he was on a trip to Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence.

Washington was immune to the disease throughout the course of the Revolution. Perhaps the work of a divine hand, as some have speculated?


On December 3, an American officer reported that “four deserters have just arrived at head-quarters, giving an account that several persons are to be sent out of Boston, this evening or to-morrow, that have been lately inoculated with the small-pox, with design, probably, to spread the infection . . . .”


Could the British really be perpetuating such an “unheard-of and diabolical scheme”?


When Washington heard the news, he didn’t believe it at first. He later told John Hancock that “the information I received that the enemy intended Spreading the Small pox amongst us, I coud not Suppose them Capable of.” But he began to believe it once smallpox began showing up on “Severall of those who Last Came out of Boston.”  He reported to Hancock that “every necessary precaution has been taken to prevent its being Comunicated to this Army, & the General Court will take Care, that it does not Spread through the Country.”


Of course, precautions were already being taken against the spread of smallpox. At this point, the main coping mechanism was to isolate the disease as much as possible. Inoculation was often forbidden. From an army perspective, Washington was worried about such a general policy of inoculation. As late as February 1777, he wrote: “I am much at a loss what Step to take to prevent the spreading of the smallpox; should We innoculate generally, the Enemy, knowing it, will certainly take Advantage of our Situation.”


Perhaps it helps to remember that inoculation for smallpox was different from today’s vaccines. Inoculation improved a person’s chances of survival, but it also ensured that he would get a milder case of the smallpox and be sick for a time. He needed to be isolated; otherwise, he could still spread the disease to others. Thus, an inoculation performed incorrectly could start an epidemic of its own.


Eventually, Washington realized that his troops must be inoculated. Otherwise, the Revolution would fail over a disease. His February 1777 letter, cited above, concluded with a P.S. that completely contradicted his earlier statement. “Since writing the above,” he concluded, “I have come to the Resoluto. of Innoculatg the Troops, and have given Orders to that purpose as well at Philada as here. This is the only effectual Method of putting a Period to the Disorder.”


The inoculations helped, and Washington eventually developed a system whereby new recruits would be inoculated as soon as they enlisted.


We hear about the tragic or heroic deaths in battles. We hear far less about the more basic problem of humans grappling with a disease. And yet it was a big problem for Washington and his army.


Primary Sources:

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