Smallpox Inoculation 1792

March 14th, 2012

In July 1792, General Anthony Wayne opened a letter to Secretary of War Henry Knox with concerns about small pox among the troops. The prevalence of small pox in Pittsburgh had led him to inoculate a small group of soldiers, but this was only a temporary fix as new detachments were arriving with the possibility of more soldiers who had neither been inoculated nor had the disease.

Wayne was reluctant to establish a routine of constant inoculation, risking the health of those soldiers affected. Inoculation, after all, involved infecting the person; while most people survived, there was always a risk of serious illness and death. Wayne proposed separating those who were still susceptible to small pox, sending them to the block house at Big Beaver, at least until Knox could offer an opinion on whether to proceed with inoculation.

Knox approved of the plan to separate the vulnerable from the infected and immune. He considered July a very bad time to attempt inoculation, and suggested that it could be done one the troops were in winter quarters. The decision to wait until later in the year may have been inspired by prevailing medical wisdom of the time. In a 1791 essay Observations on the small-pox and inoculation published in Edinburgh, Scotland, surgeon Alexander Aberdour asserted that winter was the best season for inoculation, “though it may be done at any time when the air is cool” (74). On the other hand, Knox may also have simply wanted to wait until it would be easier for the War Department to lose time and possibly men to the process of inoculation.


Source: Aberdour, Alexander. Observations on the small-pox and inoculation: to which is prefixed a criticism upon Dr. Robert Walker’s late publication on the subject, by Alexander Aberdour surgeon in Alloa. Edinburgh: Printed for J. Elder, 1791.