Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center
A Immunization Model from History

An Immunization Model from History

Many years ago my younger son and I were able to make a trip to Washington, DC, as part of a scholarship program he received after being recommended by one of his elementary school teachers.  Looking back, I'm not sure that the scholarship was any great thing except to raise money for the company that sponsored it; but, still it was a good experience as we toured our nation’s capital with its many sights. After his classes one day, we took the Metro and a bus to the Mount Vernon estate where President George Washington once walked the earth. I remember the beautiful weather with its cobalt blue skies of October, the Potomac River and seeing the great man’s estate with my son.  It was a thrill to both of us.  Like most Americans, I have always had a great interest in George Washington and have read several books about him  The one I enjoyed the most is called His Excellency George Washington, written by Joseph J. Ellis. 

In reading this book about Washington and articles on him, I was intrigued to learn about Washington’s bold decision to vaccinate the entire Continental Army against smallpox.  According to historians, it was the first mass inoculation in military history.  Furthermore, it was vital to ensuring an American victory in the War of Independence.  You see, Washington knew something about the ravages of smallpox.  It seems at the age of nineteen, he contracted the disease while traveling in Barbados. For about a month, he suffered from headache, chills, backache, high fever, and vomiting. In those days, smallpox mortality rates ranged from 15 to 50 percent.

So, when threatened by a smallpox outbreak, as commander of the Continental Army he took action--he restricted camp access, checked refugees, and isolated his troops from contagion to avoid the spread of the disease. He even specified that every single one of his thousand soldiers preparing for one particular battle must have already survived smallpox, and thus have immunity. But, here is the most interesting part—he would eventually order that all troops would be inoculated against smallpox. At the time, it was called variolation—and was technically outlawed by the Continental Congress, so Washington pushed the envelope as we would say today. According to records, some 40,000 soldiers were immunized. It worked!

"Due in large part to [Washington's] perseverance and dedication to controlling smallpox, the Continental Army was able to survive and develop into an effective and reliable fighting force, unhampered by recurring epidemics of that disease,” said historian Ann Becker.

Fast-forward to today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday reported a new total of 839 individual cases of measles across 23 states.  This is the largest outbreak of measles in the United States in a quarter of a century. Measles is highly contagious. It was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000; but, it has returned in communities with low vaccination rates. I’m not an infectious disease experts (we have several here at Texas Tech Physicians)—but, my advice is do as the Father of Our Nation did—get immunizations and encourage others to do the same.