When the first cases of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 were detected in the U.S. in early 2020, most people did not expect the virus would kill more than 700,000 of their fellow citizens over the next two years.
For millions of young Americans, it was the first pandemic of their lifetimes, the kind of thing that seems to happen only in other countries or time periods. For people old enough to remember, the arrival of COVID-19 may have recalled the Asian flu pandemic of the late 1950s. It felled more than 100,000 Americans, but it did not compel government to upend daily life the way this coronavirus has, with school closures and business shutdowns.
Anyone surprised that invisible germs could wreak havoc on the most modern and wealthy of societies might have needed to pick up a copy of Albert Camus’ classic work of fiction, “The Plague.”
“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise,” Camus wrote in his 1947 book.
Or they might have done well by perusing a timeline of epidemics and pandemics. If modern Americans were lulled into thinking they were not susceptible to plagues, the people who inhabited the British colonies embraced no such magical thinking. Generation after generation was ravaged by lethal and debilitating diseases: smallpox, dysentery, malaria, yellow fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles, pleurisy and whooping cough, to name several.
In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Elizabeth Fenn takes us back to a time when death was everywhere.
The dreaded smallpox nearly wrecked George Washington’s Continental Army, and by the time the 8-year-long epidemic had subsided in 1783, more than 130,000 people — European colonists, enslaved African-Americans and Native Americans — were dead.
By comparison, historians estimate that fewer than 7,000 Americans were killed in combat during the Revolutionary War, yet the glorious conflict with Great Britain overshadows the epidemic in popular histories of the period.
“People probably understood smallpox better than any other disease at this time, because the chain of contagion was so clear,” said Ms. Fenn, an expert on epidemic diseases and early America at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
And the colonists had a remedy available, although it had its own risks. It was called variolation, first used in the British colonies in Boston in 1721. It involved infecting an individual with pustules from a mild smallpox case so they could build immunity.
At the urging of Cotton Mather, 248 people were variolated. But the procedure killed six people who, instead of developing immunity, became gravely ill.
“Cotton Mather was a slave holder. He owned an African man named Onesimus who had been given to him by his congregation,” said Ms. Fenn, the author of “Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82.”
As a child, Onesimus had been variolated by his father in West Africa before he was captured and shipped across the Atlantic in the slave trade. The enslaved man conveyed his childhood knowledge of the variolation procedure to his master, Cotton Mather.
“It was immensely controversial,” said Ms. Fenn, to the late 1770s when General Washington required every soldier to be variolated, or inoculated, and then quarantined to preserve the fighting strength of the Continental Army during a critical juncture of the Revolutionary War.
Washington’s gamble worked, Ms. Fenn said, because the army evaded serious infections during fighting in the Southern theater leading up to the Battle of Yorktown. In 1796, a decade after the epidemic had burned out, Edward Jenner made a breakthrough discovery for a smallpox vaccine.
When asked what lesson Americans can learn from their predecessors who embraced the smallpox vaccine after suffering the disease’s ravages for centuries, Ms. Fenn said, “Immunization works.”
For more of Ms. Fenn’s insights about how the inhabitants of North America dealt with the smallpox scourge in what were the medical “Dark Ages,” listen to this episode of History As It Happens.