‘A Fearsome Decision’: Abigail Adams Had Her Children Inoculated Against Smallpox

Historians in the News
tags: public health, smallpox, Abigail Adams

The future first lady feared inoculation, but she feared smallpox more.

It was 1776, and Abigail Adams had decided that she and her four children would seek protection from a deadly epidemic. Her husband, John Adams, was in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence had just been announced.

A smallpox inoculation involved a controversial treatment: infecting the recipient with a mild case of the deadly disease.

“God grant that we may all go comfortably through the Distemper,” Abigail wrote her husband.

At the dawn of the American Revolution, the world was fighting smallpox just as it now is battling the novel coronavirus.

Like the novel coronavirus, smallpox was “a highly contagious virus that is transmitted from contact with an infected person, causing illness,” said Jonathan Stolz, a retired physician in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “Medicine from Cave Dwellers to Millennials.” More than 100,000 people in the colonies died of smallpox. Scientists around the world were desperately seeking to develop a vaccine.

People now are on the brink of receiving vaccines to prevent covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, which so far has killed nearly 300,000 Americans. In 1776, the only medical preventive was an inoculation that had been developed in Boston in the 1720s by Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister, and Zabdiel Boylston, a physician. But the procedure was considered so dangerous that a number of states eventually banned it.

So many people ignored the ban, however, that in June 1776, Massachusetts suspended its prohibition, and many doctors set up shop in Boston to perform inoculations.

Read entire article at Washington Post