Vaccinations in 1799

Researched and written by Jennifer Wiggins, Trustee

 

There are two items in the Society’s Dodge archives regarding vaccination. The first is a slip of paper that states:

February 9 1799 Sarah Dodge and Martha Dodge was inoculation with the smallpox at Uncle Thomas Dodge we came home 2 day of March 1799.

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The second is a page from small notebook with a child’s drawings and the text:

Sarah Dodge and Martha and Maria Onderdonk and Caty went in to the smallpox the 9 day of February and we went out the 2 day of March 1799 at Thomas Dodges.

Vaccination in 1799 was done with a method called variolation which inoculated individuals with material from the dried-out smallpox scabs of patients who survived an infection. It worked because the scabs contained virus that had been partially inactivated and could induce immunity in the recipient. The powdered smallpox scabs were applied to punctures in the skin. Although variolation produced a mild form of the disease, it was not free of risk and could spread the disease in the community. Consequently, three weeks of quarantine after the procedure were required.

 

The history of variolation is interesting as it originated in Asia and Africa centuries ago and was introduced to Europe by Lady Montague, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey in 1718. Its acceptance in America was a rather more interesting story which began with a smallpox outbreak in Boston in 1721. Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister who had earlier learned of the technique from his slave Onesimus, who had been inoculated as a child in Africa. As Mather reported in a letter:

 

"People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop”.

 

He persuaded a physician to inoculate patients as a protection in the Boston epidemic, only six of whom died. Unable to convert Onesimus to Christianity, Mather gave Onesimus the opportunity to purchase his freedom in 1721 but only by helping purchase another African slave to take his place

 

There was a certain amount of opposition and smallpox inoculation was discouraged in many of the colonies but some of the Founding Fathers were in favor. John Adams described his inoculation in 1764:

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“They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin about a Quarter of an inch… buried a thread (infected) about a Quarter of an inch long in the Channell….and then a Bandage bound over all”

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In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

 

“In 1735 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington, having weighed all the risks, ordered the mass inoculation of his forces to prevent the spread of the disease which could have severely depleted his army.

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In the late 18th century, Edward Jenner observed that dairymaids who contracted cowpox, a milder disease, were immune to the more virulent smallpox and safer methods began to be introduced. The disease was declared eradicated in 1980.

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