One Vaccination, Under God: When George Washington Kept a Smallpox Epidemic From Costing Him the American Revolution

"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1751, a teenaged George Washington emerged from a harrowing bout of smallpox, which he had contracted in Barbados, that left him weak, pockmarked, and well aware of just how catastrophic an outbreak of the insidious disease could be. Nearly 25 years later, the experience would help him prevent smallpox from ravaging the ranks of American soldiers, an event that could have dramatically affected the outcome of the American Revolution.

As Andrew Lawler reports for National Geographic, British, Canadian, and German troops surged into Boston in 1775 to quell the burgeoning revolt, bringing with them both weapons and, unwittingly, germs. While the foreign forces had built up an immunity to smallpox due to previous exposure, Boston colonists were no match for the disease, which began to spread through the city. To keep it from infecting his Continental Army, stationed across the Charles River, Washington forbade anybody from Boston from entering his camp and quarantined any soldier who showed signs of sickness. Washington’s precautionary measures proved successful, but the venerated general wasn’t satisfied with temporarily keeping smallpox at bay: He wanted to inoculate his entire army.

There were a few significant stumbling blocks to this course of action. For one, the vaccination process—known as variolation, after variola, the virus that causes smallpox—was still illegal in some states, and the Continental Congress had outright prohibited military surgeons from inoculating soldiers. Much like modern vaccinations, variolation entailed injecting a patient with a tiny quantity of the virus, just enough for the immune system to fight it off without seriously sickening or killing the patient. When administered properly, variolation resulted in immunity. If the dosage was wrong, however, it could lead to death—which had happened to King George III’s own son.

Washington wasn’t exactly abstaining from mass inoculation on behalf of the legislature, though. Even when done correctly, the vaccination can produce smallpox symptoms, and Washington couldn’t afford for thousands of his soldiers to be incapacitated for weeks right in the middle of the war. Instead, he ignored Congress’s order and mandated variolation only for newly recruited men, calculating that they would be fully recovered before heading into battle.

Despite his efforts, smallpox was already wreaking havoc on the existing troops. In May 1776, for example, Major General John Thomas lost somewhere between one third to one half of his 10,000 soldiers to smallpox during a siege on Quebec (which they did not win), and Thomas himself died of the disease on June 2.

“The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together,” John Adams wrote.

In February 1777, Washington told Continental Congress president John Hancock that he saw no other way to prevent the spread of the disease than to inoculate the whole army. By the end of the year, variolation had been performed on about 40,000 soldiers, and infection rates plummeted from 20 percent to a measly 1 percent. Soon after that, legislators across the fledgling nation did away with variolation prohibition.

While Washington has long been lauded for leading American revolutionaries to victory on the battlefield, his shrewd foresight and strong leadership in the face of disease was just as, if not more, important.

“A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career,” historian Joseph Ellis told National Geographic.

[h/t National Geographic]

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.