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Dr. Francis Guiteau and the Smallpox Inoculation During the Era of American Independence

I think it is safe to say that we all have heard of the disease smallpox sometime before. Perhaps in a high school history class or maybe even in some conversation over this past year during our current pandemic of the corona virus. Simply put, smallpox, caused by the variola virus, is a very contagious, fever inducing, progressive skin rash that killed about 3 out of every 10 people who contracted it and left the survivors with large lasting scars and others permanently blind. The origins of the disease are impossible to know, but interestingly, there are recorded outbreaks of this disease throughout modern history, some even dating back to China in the 4th century. Smallpox since then has traveled the globe crippling and spreading through populations like wildfire. There have even been traces of pustules found on the head of the mummy of the famous Pharaoh Ramses the 5th.

The first cases of smallpox in North America are documented to have occurred sometime in the 16th century. For example, the prominent conquistador Hernán Cortés who explored and ultimately conquered modern-day Mexico probably could not have done so without the help of smallpox. When Cortés and his men arrived in the Yucatan peninsula, the Aztec civilization boasted an estimated 16 million people. Their capital, the beautiful and expansive Tenochtitlan, was possibly the largest city in the world at the time, maybe being larger than Paris, Istanbul, or even Beijing. So how was it then that Cortez and only 500 Spanish soldiers were able to conquer the mighty empire? In addition to weaponry and fighting tactics, the Spanish unknowingly and unwittingly brought along what turned out to be their strongest weapon: smallpox. You see, the Spanish had been exposed already to smallpox for several millennia and had some small natural immunity; but the Aztecs on the other hand were biologically defenseless. During the few years Cortés waged war, it is estimated that smallpox wiped out up to 40% of the population at Tenochtitlan, ultimately aiding in his victory and capture of the empire.

As people understood the devastating outcomes of smallpox outbreaks, they began to search and experiment with different mitigation techniques. One of the first techniques for control was called variolation, named after the smallpox virus variola. This process, now known as inoculation, was basically exposing people who never experienced smallpox to material from pustules or smallpox sores. This included scratching pustules scabs onto the skin or even, and here comes a vomit trigger warning, inhaling said scabs from other infected people. Post variolation or inoculation, people usually experienced only mild symptoms associated with smallpox, like developing a fever or a rash, and, yes, less people died through this mitigation.

Said inoculation was first used in Colonial America in 1721 and was indeed a life-saving procedure. Unfortunately, it was also a controversial procedure. As the historian Jeffrey Weir puts it, “inoculation became more than a life-saving medical procedure; it became a flashpoint for contention, conflict, and the reordering of social boundaries.” This is because, since the inception of the inoculation in America, inoculation was really only afforded by the wealthy and privileged. During the Revolutionary times of the mid to late 1700’s, smallpox posed a real problem. Because of soldier deployments during the French and Indian War in 1763 as well as the initial deployments of the Continental Army to fight the British in 1775, smallpox was able to spread through all communities throughout colonial America. This constant spread drove many to inoculation that otherwise would not have gone.

In 1775 and 1776, inoculation became very popular both in the Continental Army as well as the civilian sector invoking responses from the likes of many historical figures such as Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin, and even George Washington. One point of contention arose in 1775 mainly in the body of the Continental Army, where inoculation was actually forbidden because although it mitigated smallpox symptoms, it still would render soldiers incapacitated for some time as they recovered. Although there were some restrictions, many soldiers repeatedly disobeyed and neglected these orders, inoculating themselves, which in turn caused division in the ranks. By this time, inoculation was largely spread throughout Europe and most of the British soldiers were inoculated and immune whereas it is estimated that only about less than a quarter of the soldiers in the Continental Army were inoculated or had natural immunity. However, in 1777, General George Washington saw the calamitous nature of the smallpox virus and decided to order all soldiers to be inoculated. On January 6, 1777, he wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr., Director of Hospitals in the Continental Army, to inoculate all soldiers explaining that “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy”. There was a real urgency after this to have all soldiers inoculated.

George Washington (oil painting (visual work); Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741-1827); ca. 1779-1781; Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, New York state, U...; 97.33)

In 1796, a Dr. Edward Jenner discovered that further symptom mitigation could occur through exposing and inoculation of a less deadly pox virus called cowpox. Through inoculation of this virus, less people got really sick, and the deadliness of smallpox was diminished. Through global vaccination efforts, the last natural case of smallpox was diagnosed in 1978 and in 1980, the World Health Assembly declared the world free of smallpox.

Undoubtedly, many of our ancestors had to deal with smallpox in some form. Dr. Francis Guiteau is a paternal ancestor of mine that dealt with smallpox quite a bit in his life. Francis Guiteau (1736 – 1814) was the first of this Guiteau line born in North America. He was born on a hot day in August in Connecticut. Francis Guiteau had come from a long line of prominent French Guiteau’s who had fled France only two generations earlier due to religious persecution, and had been refugees living in first the Netherlands, and then England. Many in the Guiteau family were well-educated doctors and Francis, perhaps wanting to follow in this line or perhaps because he was expected to, pursued a medical degree and ultimately established his residence and practice in Lanesborough, Massachusetts.

Francis was determined to lead and be an influential man. In 1756, when he was 20 years old, he enlisted to fight in the French and Indian War being deployed to parts of New York and Canada. Surely during this time of travel, he encountered or at least heard about smallpox breaking out among the troops. When Francis returned home, he was a changed man with new experiences as well as a revolutionary spirit. During the next several years, colonial America was experiencing increasing tensions with Great Britain. In the few years leading up to the inception of the Revolutionary War, Francis was deeply engaged in revolutionary talk. So much so that he was a delegate of Lanesborough to the famous Stockbridge Convention of July 6, 1774, where the first resolutions were passed pledging not to buy taxed articles from Great Britain.

As mentioned earlier, during these years where revolution was just beginning, inoculation was becoming the mod, not only among the soldiers, but again, also among the civilian population. By this time Francis was 40 years old and probably too old to fight in the Revolutionary. His efforts were directed at other active measures to support and aid the population, utilizing his leadership skills and medical knowledge to practice and support people not only in Lanesborough, Massachusetts, but also in all the surrounding towns and state. Undoubtedly, this practice and care likely included the application and inoculation of smallpox.

On September 24, 1776, the town of Lanesborough, Massachusetts assembled together to review a few topics of consideration. After agreeing to vote with the house of representatives to establish a constitutional government for Massachusetts, Dr. Francis Guiteau was appointed to head the inoculation efforts for smallpox for the town. Perhaps for Francis this was only a formality and a blimp in his life, but for us looking back, it is a testament to his work. He took part in not only saving many lives through smallpox inoculation, but also in aiding the revolution and freedoms his ancestors. If you think about it, inoculation could even be a form of freedom.

Cover page of The New Method of Inoculating for the Small Pox, 1781, by Benjamin Rush, M.D.

I think I speak for all when I say that I am grateful for the work of our ancestors in ridding this world of deadly diseases such as smallpox. I am also grateful for Dr. Francis Guiteau’s service and example that we can look to, and I am sure that if we all look in our lineage, that we can find some of our ancestors that have set examples for us. May we continue our search and continue exploring our roots!

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