FACT CHECK: Was Martha Washington Vaccinated For Smallpox?
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul claimed that First Lady Martha Washington was vaccinated against smallpox in order to visit her husband, George Washington, in the military camps during the Revolutionary War.
Washington was inoculated in 1776 before visiting her husband at his military encampment, according to historical records. Though the smallpox vaccine wasn’t discovered until 1796, a comparable immunization technique called variolation existed before then.
During a committee hearing on March 5, the Senate heard from medical experts on the public health threat of preventable infectious diseases. The testimony came amid reports of measles outbreaks in unvaccinated children. Measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, although in the years since, anywhere from 37 to 667 people have contracted the disease annually.
Paul, a medical physician, said that while he believes the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks, he does not support government-mandated vaccination. “I still do not favor giving up on liberty for a false sense of security,” he said at the hearing.
He argued that despite early public resistance, immunization eventually became a mainstream practice, mentioning the smallpox vaccine in particular. “The government did not mandate the vaccine though, but within two generations, it was accepted enough that George Washington insisted that Martha be vaccinated with the smallpox vaccine before visiting him in the military camps,” he claimed.
Originally, smallpox was prevented via inoculation (also known as variolation), where a patient is exposed to infected matter, often through a small cut to the skin. As the practice gained recognition in the West, many people in the American colonies were skeptical of the approach. During a 1721 smallpox outbreak in Boston, religious leader Cotton Mather called for inoculation, though many doctors ignored his pleas. One doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, championed the procedure.
Variolation was a precursor to the smallpox vaccine, which was created by Edward Jenner in the late 18th century. The vaccine relies on the use of cowpox, rather than smallpox itself, to inoculate the patient. (The word “vaccine” is actually based on the Latin word for “cow.”) In principle, however, the two treatments are comparable.
Martha Washington was inoculated against smallpox in 1776 in order to visit her husband in a military encampment, according to records kept by the Mount Vernon Estate. “Smallpox was one of the most deadly enemies soldiers faced during wartime. After successfully weathering the inoculation, Martha could then travel to the soldiers’ camp without fear of contracting the disease or transmitting it to others,” reads its website.
George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, wrote to his brother about the inoculation in mid-1776. “Mrs Washington is now under Innoculation in this City; & will, I expect, have the Small pox favourably—this is the 13th day, and she has very few Pustules,” he said. “She would have wrote to my Sister but thought it prudent not to do so, notwithstanding there could be but little danger in conveying the Infection in this Manner.”
The first president himself had contracted smallpox while in Barbados in the 1750s and knew of its dangers. After surviving smallpox once, Washington was immune for life.
Washington also established a system in which newly enlisted soldiers were inoculated as they entered the military, according to a research historian with the Mount Vernon Estate.
In March 1777, Washington wrote to military headquarters, saying, “You are hereby required immediately to send me an exact return of your regiment, and to send all your recruits, who have had the small pox to join the Army. Those, who have not, are to be sent to Philadelphia, and put under the direction of the commanding officer there, who will have them inoculated.”