The Patriotic Antecedents for Getting the Covid-19 Vaccine
"Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics."
- General Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith
Among George Washington's regulars during the War for Independence, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease. The Variola smallpox virus was the most vicious of them all. After witnessing the disaster wrought by the Variola virus in the wake of the Canadian campaign, Benedict Arnold and Benjamin Franklin worried that the virus would be the army's undoing.
There were no vaccines in 1777, but inoculating individuals with pus or scabs from other infected people, a less deadly form of the disease, was widespread throughout Europe. Inoculation against smallpox was dangerous; one to two percent of the inoculated died, compared with 30% who succumbed when the virus was acquired naturally. After survival, people were immune. Most British troops were immune to Variola, while the Indians and slaves fighting for the British died in large numbers.
Less than a quarter of the Continental Army had ever had the virus, and its prevalence in camp was deterring recruits. Washington ordered the mass inoculation of the army and all recruits on February 5, 1777. Joseph Ellis, the Revolutionary War historian, along with others, says that Washington's unpopular decision to innoculate his army against the Variola virus was the strategic stroke of genius that won the war.
Eisenhower and the Spanish Flu
Sometime during the fall of 1917, ducks and geese migrating from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico dropped billions of bird viruses on Kansas farms, infecting pigs that in turn infected farmers.
In early February 1918, a physician west of Dodge City noted a dramatic uptick of extremely virulent influenza cases. Young, healthy patients were struck down quickly, and many died. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the epidemic was over, and life returned to normal.
In the March of 1918, those men from Dodge City went to Camp Funston at Ft. Riley for basic training before shipment to Europe. Apparently, some of the recruits arrived at Camp Funston carrying the flu virus.
The soldiers from Camp Funston, some infected with the flu virus, disembarked in France. As they waited in crowded marshaling yards near Boulogne, they mixed with wounded, sick, resting, and transient British soldiers. The virus then spread rapidly up and down the front and all over Europe. In this first wave, millions were infected, but few died.
That changed on the first of August. Somewhere, somehow, the virus mutated into a killer. By late August 1918, the second wave of flu hit widely scattered Atlantic ports, including Boston's crowded piers. The flu spread to Fort Devens crammed with 45,000 transit troops.
On September 8, Fort Devens reported its first case. Shortly thereafter, a shipment of draftees from Ft. Devens arrived at Camp Colt. Within a week, 1/3 of the camp became sick, and ultimately 175 died.
Major Dwight Eisenhower was commander of the Army Tank Corps at Camp Colt in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Once the flu was detected, Ike followed the recommendations of Chief surgeon Lt. Colonel Thomas Scott.
All serious cases were promptly admitted to the hospital. Every man in camp was required to have his throat and nose sprayed with germicidal solution daily. Every man was examined when sprayed to prevent hiding symptoms of influenza.
Places of amusement in Gettysburg were closed to soldiers, and military police prevented soldiers from entering stores except in small numbers. Intermingling or forming groups in areas of the camp was prohibited, including crap games, which was extremely unpopular with the soldiers.
Beds and bedding were aired and sunned for the entire day. Tents were furled for the entire day. Eisenhower ordered more tents to be put up to allow for isolation of men with any symptoms, even if the isolation was simply a canvas partition between beds. Every tent was limited to four men, and Military Police prevented anyone from entering or leaving the post.
In addition, Ike ordered inoculations against smallpox, typhoid, and other infectious diseases to be given so that the situation would not be more complicated.
Eisenhower also had the forethought to cooperate with the town to control the spread of the epidemic. He helped coordinate donations of food along with gifts of medical supplies and bedding.
By the end of October, the epidemic had abated. Although deaths ultimately reached 175, that number was below the average for Army camps. Eisenhower's quick reaction, early declaration of quarantine, and cooperation with the town of Gettysburg helped keep a terrible situation under control. The War Department then asked that Eisenhower send thirty of the doctors to explain the measures taken so they could be replicated on other posts.
The Smallpox epidemic of 1721 in Boston
In 1721, Boston had an outbreak of smallpox. Onesimus, a slave owned by Cotton Mather, had told his master of being inoculated against smallpox while in Africa. Mather had also read of the procedure taking place in Turkey. Slaves with pockmarks taken from Africa were more desirable than the unblemished. However, the provenance of the procedure led to its denigration by the free white population. How could the enslaved, who were considered by some to be little more than animals, without souls and unfit for independent life, teach anything lifesaving to their masters?
Only Dr. Zabdiel Boylston of Harvard responded positively to Mather's call for a campaign of public inoculation. Boylston inoculated Thomas, his six-year-old son, and then his 36-year-old slave and the slave's two-year-old son. All survived with mild cases and no disfigurement. Eventually, Boylston inoculated 247 people with six fatalities (2.4%) compared to 5,759 Bostonians who acquired the disease naturally of whom 844 (14.6%) died.
Had the entire 10,600 population of Boston been inoculated, 587 lives would have been saved. As a testament to the enduring strength of the race prejudice in the United States, Onesimus's contribution to public health is little known or admitted and did nothing to change people's opinion of Africans or Africa. Instead, perhaps, the attitudes steming from slave times three centuries ago continue to this day, encouraging resistence to inoculation, and its modern offspring, vaccination.