Smallpox was a dreaded contagious disease. If one survived, one could be scarred and disfigured for life.
George Washington and his Brother Lawrence
Augustine Washington died when his son George was eleven. He had four younger siblings. He also had two older half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, from his father’s first marriage. Fortunately for George, Lawrence Washington (1718-1852), some dozen years his senior, had always displayed a brotherly affection for the boy, and took him under his wing.
Mount Vernon, Lawrence’s property, was a modest plantation with a modest house, situated on the banks of the Potomac River, midway between Alexandria (which he helped found) and Fredericksburg. Lawrence had married Anne Fairfax, the 15-year-old daughter of his near-neighbors, and George was invited to spend time at their plantation, with ready access to the Fairfaxes, one of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families in Virginia. They sincerely liked the bright young fellow who absorbed knowledge, breeding and bearing first-hand. They made many things possible, including his early trade as a surveyor. At seventeen, George became part of the group of men who surveyed and made maps for the new town of Alexandria.
Lawrence Washington was tubercular however, likely infected when he served in the
British Army. By thirty, the disease (frequently termed “consumption”) had debilitated him to a point that his doctors insisted that only a warm climate could keep him from certain death. His young wife implored him to heed the advice.
With his nineteen-year-old brother George as nurse and companion, Lawrence Washington sailed to Barbados in the West Indies. It was the only time George Washington left the American continent.
It was in Barbados that George contracted smallpox and was ill for at least one month. His case was considered fairly mild, although it left him with some facial pock-marks. And permanent immunity. The brothers returned several months later, but Lawrence died within a year, leaving a wife and infant.
According to Lawrence’s will, his Mount Vernon plantation went to his widow Anne, followed by his infant daughter. In the event that neither survived, the bequest went to his half-brother George. Anne and the baby survived Lawrence by only two years. Mt. Vernon now belonged to George Washington.
Smallpox (a variola virus) has been successfully eradicated during the past fifty years. But prior to that time, it had been known for thousands of years. It was highly contagious, had a mortality rate of perhaps 30%, and if a patient survived, the scars from facial pock marks could be disfiguring to a point of grotesque. Permanent blindness was not uncommon.
It was a horrible disease, lasting a month or more. It went through several stages including fevers and body pains, nausea and vomiting, an infectious and spreading rash that evolved into pustules, usually originating in the mouth and throat. Then the pustules spread to the rest of the body, erupted, spread further, and finally dried up and fell off, usually leaving disfiguring scars. The disease was generally believed to have been brought to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by European immigrants and the slave trade, although most American “outbreaks” were confined to “cities.” Rural areas seldom had epidemics of smallpox.
The only thing good about smallpox, was that if one survived, it would provide immunity for life.
Smallpox, George and the American Revolution
In spring, 1775, Boston, with a population of 15,000, was considered a major city, and the center for the Continental Army, following hostilities in Lexington and Concord. Smallpox, was rife, acerbated by close quarter “city” living, and reaching epidemic proportions.
George Washington, with the highest military rank and experience of any “American,” was appointed Commanding General. Within days of taking command, he wrote to the Continental Congress of his concerns about strong indications of smallpox, assuring them of his “utmost vigilance against this most dangerous enemy” and that he was taking aggressive steps to isolate anyone who showed even its slightest symptoms.
By fall, 1775, smallpox had claimed hundreds of victims in and around Boston. Hundreds of young farm boys who had never experienced close-quarter living had come to join the Continental Army and were particularly susceptible. General Washington immediately forbade any soldiers to leave the encampment – or have any contact with Boston civilians. He insisted that sanitary conditions be improved, including digging new latrines far from their drinking water supply.
Once the epidemic in Boston proper began to subside, he sent in nearly a thousand of his soldiers who had survived smallpox and thus were immune, to help abate any further spread of the dreaded disease.
Inoculation against smallpox had been known since early in the 18th century, but was a perilous experience, and far from safe. It would not be until early in the 19th century that sufficient scientific information made it a viable (although still frightening) consideration. It was a long process, with no guarantee that it would be painless or successful. It might take upwards of a month before a patient was fit to resume normal life.
Nevertheless, George Washington believed wholeheartedly in the process of injecting dead smallpox pustules into living patients, thus infecting them with a very mild case, and subsequent immunity. He insisted that all Continental soldiers be inoculated and thus free for life of the scourge.
He believed in the process so strongly, that he insisted his wife Martha be inoculated as well, which she did while she was in Philadelphia.
Looking at Washington
Photography was not invented until decades after Washington’s death. During his lifetime, any images of the man were dependent on the talents and perceptions of portrait painters. Some were better than others. A few dared to paint (or engrave) the Father of our Country as they truly saw him.
Including his smallpox scars.
Davis, Burke – George Washington and the American Revolution – Random House, 1975
Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2006
Williams, Tony – The Pox and the Covenant – Sourcebooks, 2010