Scourge of the 18th Century
Smallpox at Quebec
In December 1775, over a thousand Continental Army Soldiers, under the command of General Benedict Arnold and General Richard Montgomery, assembled outside Quebec. The men were tired and weak from a long, cold march. Like Washington's men outside Boston, most had no immunity to smallpox. Near exhaustion, the men were highly vulnerable to an outbreak of disease. Journals written by Soldiers reveal that by late December, the outbreak had begun.
On New Year's Eve 1775, the Continental Army attacked during a snowstorm. The attack was a disaster. Montgomery was killed, and the British captured hundreds of men. Whether prison or free, the Continental Soldiers faced similar conditions: cramped quarters, cold, lack of food. Quarantine procedures failed to stop the disease, and hundreds died. As the survivors began their long retreat, they carried the disease with them.
Army policy forbade variolation out of fear that the enemy might attack while Soldiers were recovering, but the experience at Quebec proved the inadequacy of quarantine. Some historians believe that the spread of the disease was halted when General Gates ordered a clandestine inoculation program.
By 1777, Washington had had enough. He began an official inoculation program in January. In February, he ordered that all new recruits should
be inoculated immediately.
Thanks to aggressive efforts at eradication, the last known case of smallpox occurred in 1977. Except for small samples maintained for research purposes, the virus has reportedly ceased to exist.
A list of relevant PA Educational Standards is available in the Museum Store inside the Visitor and Education center.
Funding for this sign provided by the G.B. Stuart Charitable Foundation.