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Our antiviral founding father

When the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, the American colonies still needed to win the Revolutionary War to truly gain their independence from the British Empire. The war continued another seven years until Sept. 3, 1783. One of the deadliest threats to the Continental Army, however, was not the British Army, it was disease, especially smallpox.

Boston had an outbreak of smallpox in 1775 from British Redcoats arriving to fight the rebellion. George Washington knew very well the dangers of smallpox after having had it himself as a young man, which left scars on his face. To keep his soldiers safe, Washington did not allow anyone from Boston near his troops. Washington wrote to John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, that he would "continue the utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy." Later, when the British withdrew from Boston, Washington allowed only soldiers with immunity into the city.

Most of the Continental Army had never had smallpox while most of the Redcoats had. This put the Americans at a big disadvantage. An attempt by the Continental Army to take Quebec failed in part because of heavy losses due to smallpox. In fact, General John Thomas died of smallpox in July 1776.

This was before the advancement of vaccinations. However, there was a procedure known as variolation, an early form of vaccination which involved exposing a cut on the recipient's arm to a small dose of the virus, hopefully just enough to trigger immunity without causing severe illness or death. The procedure was illegal in many places including Washington's home state of Virginia.

Washington knew they could not afford to lose more soldiers to smallpox. Thus, despite push back from the Continental Congress, Washington ordered this primitive form of vaccination for the entire army, and by the end of 1777 more than 40,000 soldiers had received it. Infection of the army dropped from 20 percent to one percent and lawmakers repealed bans of variolation for smallpox across the colonies.

George Washington's efforts at quarantine and primitive vaccination helped protect the Continental Army from disease which helped them eventually defeat the British Army and earn independence for the United States of America.

The war on Covid-19 may take several years as well. History shows how vaccination can be a great weapon against disease. Unfortunately, many remain unvaccinated, and hundreds in the U.S. continue to die each day. We need to rally both nationally and locally, to unite our efforts so we can gain our independence from Covid-19.

Andrew Ellsworth, M.D. is part of The Prairie Doc  team of physicians and currently practices family medicine in Brookings, South Dakota. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc  library, visit and follow Prairie Doc  on Facebook featuring On Call with the Prairie Doc  a medical Q&A show streaming on Facebook most Thursdays at 7 p.m. central.


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