Smallpox Inoculation in Revolutionary America: Doctors, Soldiers, and American Innovation

AHA Session 44
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Exeter Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Anastasia Pratt, SUNY Empire State College
Smallpox, Inoculation, and the Continental Army
Ann M. Becker, Empire State College (State University of New York)
Sara S. Gronim, Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus

Session Abstract

Inoculation for smallpox was undeniably one of only a handful of medical advances in the eighteenth century, yet its value was not entirely self-evident. Consequently its adoption was geographically and chronologically uneven. Our panel seeks to broaden our understanding of this pattern of uneven adoption through examining three different arenas in the latter half of the eighteenth century in eastern North America. Specifically, we will examine the ways in which the adoption of inoculation intersected with military policies, medical practice, and scientific innovation. Ann Becker in her paper “Smallpox, Inoculation, and the Continental Army” demonstrates that the smallpox significantly shaped military strategy and battlefield effectiveness during the American Revolution. She then argues that the eventual policy of mass troop inoculation was a significant military innovation. In “Building a Medical Practice: Smallpox, Inoculation, and Community, 1775-1783,” Melissa Grafe refocuses the discussion from questions of large-scale public health to individual self-making. A microstudy of Dr. John Archer, a physician in rural Maryland, Grafe’s paper demonstrates the ways in which inoculation could be deployed as a strategy in the competitive medical marketplace of the late eighteenth century. Andrew Wehrman examines claims emerging in the 1760s that inoculation was in fact “American” in origin.  In his paper, “In These Infectious Times: the Popular Politics of Inoculation in Revolutionary America,” Wehrman argues that scientific innovation was increasingly embraced as one route to an American identity distinct from that of the English. Together these papers demonstrate that merely examining inoculation as a medical procedure that “worked” is insufficient to explaining where, when, and why it was adopted. Our intention is to contribute both to continued conversations about the social and cultural contexts that make medical innovation intelligible and to the multiple ways in which the nascent United States developed as a distinct society.

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