Scourge of the 18th Century
Smallpox and the Revolutionary War
George Washington understood the threat of smallpox. Washington himself had survived the disease when he was 19. He knew there were two ways to control smallpox: variolate the healthy or quarantine the sick. The problem with variolation was that recovering troops would be unfit for duty for 2-3-weeks. Moreover, soldiers who developed a serious case of smallpox could start an epidemic of the full-blown disease. The problem with quarantine was that it was not always effective. Soldiers might transmit the disease before they could be isolated.
In the summer of 1775, the Continental Army lay outside British occupied Boston. Inside the city, smallpox raged through the population. Most of the British troops had been exposed at home in England and were immune. Most of the Continental Soldiers were not.
As people in Boston died at a rate of 10-30 a day, Washington faced a serious decision. Should he run the risk of variolation and the possibility that the British might attack while his men were recovering, or should he count on quarantine methods if smallpox broke out among his men?
Washington chose quarantine. The Continental Army was spared a major outbreak, in part because Washington personally oversaw strict quarantine procedures. Other Continental Army officers were not so lucky.
list of relevant PA Educational Standards is available in the Museum Store inside the Visitor and Education center.
Funding for this sign provided by the G.B. Stuart Charitable Foundation.