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“Strongly Attacked”: George Washington Encounters Smallpox

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
December 2, 2016

It may have started with a headache and a fever, or just a general feeling of malaise. It could have struck after a night’s rest, when his morning routine of rising from bed was painfully curtailed by a severe backache unlike any he’d experienced before. A chill running throughout his body—abnormal in the extreme heat of the tropical climate of Barbados—could have been the first signal that something wasn’t right. However the illness chose to first present itself, within a few days a rash appeared on his skin. Less than two days from their emergence, the eruptions grew and spread, covering his entire body.1 George Washington was only 19 years old. He was on an adventure in the West Indies, and he had smallpox.

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/">CC BY 4.0</a>

A maid shows an old man his smallpocked face in a hand mirror. Coloured lithograph by Langlumé, 1823. Image courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

George Washington traveled to Barbados in 1751 with his older brother Lawrence. The younger Washington kept a diary of their travels to and from the island, as well as of their time on land. But he fell conspicuously silent for twenty-five days. During that time, George was suffering from the dangerous but common illness of smallpox. Because of his silence on the matter, historians can only look to medical research and other firsthand accounts to imagine George’s experience.

Smallpox, also called variola, is an acute, contagious disease.2 Time between contraction and the outbreak of symptoms varies from ten to fourteen days.3 George’s diary entry for Nov. 16, 1751, reads: “Was strongly attac<k>ed with the small Pox.”4 It is likely, then, that George contracted the disease between the 3rd and 7th of November—quite possibly on Nov. 3, when he had dinner at the home of Gedney Clarke, where “smallpox was in his family.”5 Mary Clarke, Gedney’s wife, has been suggested by scholars as the likely individual infected, due to the comment by George that she was “much indisposed, insomuch that we had not the pleasure of her company” during that gathering.6 However, George saw Mrs. Clarke two days later, on Nov. 5, and did not mention her health in his diary entry; as a result, it is not conclusive that she was the stricken family member. In addition, the virus can last for weeks outside of the human body, and it could have been lingering throughout the house.

Once the rash had spread over the young man’s skin, George’s only option was to follow doctor’s orders and hope for a safe recovery. His attending physician, John Lanahan, was a friend of Clarke’s “whose attendance,” George wrote, “was very constant till my recovery.”7 Throughout his twenty-five days house-bound with smallpox, George’s initial symptoms would have increased in severity before recovery, highlighted by a myriad of painful pustules.8 As for the treatment throughout the course of the disease, Dr. William Hillary’s 1735 work A Rational and Mechanical Essay on the Small Pox gives some clues as to possibilities. Anti-inflammatory medicines were used, as were methods of cooling the patient with baths. Hillary detailed the most useful methods by disease stage:

  1. Bleed the patient when the fever is high.
  2. Purge and bleed during the second fever.
  3. Employ methods to decrease inflammation, including medicine, fluids, and a special diet.9
Advertisement: Virginia Gazette, Purdie: Sept. 19, 1777 – pg. 2, col. 1. Image courtesy of the Omohundro Institute at William and Mary.

An advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, Sept. 19, 1777 for troops to be inoculated. Image courtesy of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.

Whatever specific treatment the teenager received, George was able to emerge from his sickbed on Dec. 12 and resume exploring the island of Barbados. His diary does not reference his illness again.

Recovery from smallpox resulted in a unique benefit: immunity for life. That immunity to smallpox would serve General Washington well in his military career. The highly contagious disease ran rampant during the Revolutionary War, with European soldiers arriving on the mainland possibly carrying the disease, and colonial troops traveling farther distances than ever before and encountering new people and new environments. Smallpox inoculation was one method of curbing a general outbreak. Inoculation consisted of implanting a live variola into the patient, resulting in a milder form of the disease and thus, immunity.10 Washington wrote to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates in 1777 and expressed uncertainty how to protect his troops: “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.”11 Ultimately, all new recruits to the Continental Army were required to be inoculated before officially joining the ranks. George Washington’s struggle with smallpox in Barbados may not have been a pleasant experience, but his resulting immunity was a significant advantage to the Revolutionary War effort.

 

Notes

1. George Henry Fox, A practical treatise on smallpox (Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott, 1903).

2. Ibid.

3. Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 15; Brenda J. McEleney, Lt. Col., USAF, Smallpox: A Primer (Alabama: Air University, 2000), 6.

4. The Papers of George Washington: Diaries, 1:82.

5. Ibid., 1:72.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., 1:72.

8. Fox, A practical treatise on smallpox; and Fenn, Pox Americana.

9. William Hillary, A Rational and Mechanical Essay on the Small Pox (London: G. Strahan, 1735), 27-29.

10. Fenn, Pox Americana, 32.

11. George Washington to Horatio Gates, 5 Feb. 1777.