History and Art History
College of Humanities and Social Sciences

A Challenge to the Cause: Smallpox Inoculation in the Era of American Independence, 1764 to 1781

Jeffrey Weir

Major Professor: Randolph Scully, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Rosemarie Zagarri, Cynthia Kierner, Madeline Rice

Robinson Hall B, #333
April 18, 2014, 01:30 PM to 11:30 AM

Abstract:

This dissertation examines how smallpox inoculation shaped the character of the American Revolution from the first rumblings of colonial discontent in 1764 until the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. First used in the colonies in 1721, inoculation was a life-saving but controversial procedure. Although many historians have explored the effects of smallpox on the Revolutionary cause, few have explained the threats engendered by the use of inoculation itself on the patriot movement. 

This dissertation reorients the focus by introducing into the scholarship of smallpox a concerted examination of the social and political effects of inoculation during the American war for independence.   Through an extensive investigation of personal letters, diaries and journals, late-eighteenth century newspapers, medical texts, government and church records,  this study argues that over the course of the war, inoculation became more than a life-saving medical procedure; it became a flashpoint for contention, conflict, and the reordering of social boundaries.  Inoculation functioned as a means to either affirm or challenge an individual's social class position; as a way for individuals to assert their patriotism  to the cause; as an opportunity for women to pierce the male dominated field of inoculation, and, unfortunately, as yet another means by which  white slave owners could exert their power over enslaved Africans.

In many respects inoculation was just as threatening to the Revolutionary movement as smallpox. Soldiers who inoculated against orders in 1775 and 1776 in order to save their lives challenged the command structure of the Continental Army. Then in 1777 after George Washington ordered that all soldiers in the Continental Army be inoculated, the procedure strained ties between the military and civilian sectors. Anti-inoculation riots incited by the poor and middle classes against the wealthy  proved to be dangerous distractions to the fight against the British. By examining these events in depth, this work demonstrates how internal conflicts and social divisions were even deeper and more varied than previous scholars have recognized.  Ironically, the use of this life-saving medical procedure had social impacts that nearly derailed the American cause.

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