Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June 23: Smallpox

In a letter to Gen. John Sullivan, John Adams asked for an update on Canada. In particular, Adams asked about smallpox:

“Pray let me know the state of the Small Pox, an Enemy which we have more cause to fear than any other. Is it among our Troops? Is it among the Canadians, I mean the Inhabitants of the Country? Can no effectual Means be used to annihilate the Infection? Cannot it be kept out of the army?”

Adams warned, “The New England Militia will be of no Use, if they came in ever so great Numbers, if that distemper is to Seize them, as soon as they arrive.”

John Adams to John Sullivan, Philadelphia, 23 June 1776, in Smith, Letters of Delegates to Congress, Vol.4, 297.

Historian Elizabeth Anne Fenn suggested that most British soldiers survived smallpox before the American Revolution, giving them lifelong immunity. Many Americans had no such exposure. This immunological disadvantage was a major factor in the collapse of American forces in Canada.

Please consult Elizabeth A. Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 (New York: Hill & Wang, 2001), especially pages 27-28 and 260.
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