New York Historical Society Shows How City Busted Smallpox

Documents Include George Washington Order to Vaccinate Troops

Grotesque Scourge Ended With Resolute City Wide Action

Mystery of Why it Worked in Original Form Unsolved

The current wave of rebellion against vaccinations doesn’t seem to show any signs of weakening, but the new exhibition starting today drawing on the rich collection of New York City artifacts at the New York Historical Society might give adherents pause. It recounts how mass vaccination scored one of the greatest triumphs in medical history.

The documents and photos, along with models of the ghastly results of smallpox, also show that resistance to this public health measure is not new, but has plenty of historical precedent, although this City was the first to apply it in such gigantic numbers. Over six million were vaccinated against smallpox in 1947 in little over a month – that it became the first battle won in the complete eradication of that disease worldwide.

“Be Safe! “Be Sure” Be Vaccinated!” was the City propaganda theme at the time, and the Society has borrowed the title for a show about the progress of vaccination here from the eighteenth century till today, which pairs illustrative models of the grotesque symptoms of the once rampant disease with photos, portraits and letters of prominent people in the City and country who championed and in some cases resisted the antidote.

One paper is the order of George Washington in 1777 to inoculate all the soldiers of the rebel army, when he found he was losing more men to this debilitating and often fatal scourge than to the guns of the British. The rural Americans who made up the bulk of his army had rarely been exposed to a malady which the British had often survived, and they were felled as frequently as the North American Indian tribes who were also being decimated by the new biological threat to which they had no immunity.

The disgusting ailment left its victims permanently scarred, if they were lucky enough to survive it.

One remarkable fact the show records is that in the earliest days of do it yourself vaccination the method was to rub some of the pus from the pustules covering the skin of a victim into an open wound of the person to be protected. Why this direct blood infection didn’t result in a full blown case of the dread disease but only a mild infection is not explained. Considering the ailment was transmissible by mere contact with a sick patient, it seems inconsistent that a more direct method involving a high dose of the germ merely yielded a mild form of the disease.

While we intend to research this points further, the show can be recommended to all as a vivid historical reminder of how this appalling and disfiguring infection ruined the appearance of many prominent figures in history, including the great English author, literary critic and dictionary maker Samuel Johnson, who caught it as a babe in arms from his nursemaid.

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