Voted ‘First Lady
Least Likely to Put Up With
Your Anti-Vax Shit.’
Once upon a time, there was a disease called ‘smallpox.’ This smallpox was a son of a bitch, with a 30% mortality rate. And if you survived it? There was a pretty danged good chance you’d be scarred terribly as a permanent reminder of the hundreds of pustules that graced every square inch of your skin. Or you could be blinded. Or affected mentally. Or possibly rendered sterile, in George Washington’s case. You can understand why humans spent literally thousands of years trying to find a way to deal with this bastard.
Edward Jenner’s vaccine started the slow steady march to the disease’s eventual eradication, but there was a way to combat it before that wonderful invention. It was called ‘inoculation’ or ‘variolation.’ Like a million other things, this procedure originated in China six centuries ago. It spread from there, eventually being brought to western Europe by Lady Mary Montagu after her travels in Turkey. She demonstrated its efficacy by having her son and daughter undergo it, the latter in the presence of the British Royal Court.
But how did it work? You took the dried scabs of another inoculated person, or someone with a more mild case of smallpox. You rubbed them into a scratch on your body. You got cozy for a month while events took their course. Mortality rate: up to 2%. Dangerous, but a hell of a lot better than 30%.
A fact which must have crossed Abigail Adams’ mind when a smallpox epidemic hit New England just as the American Revolution was getting underway. She had a decision to make: schlep herself and her four children over to Boston with their bedding and a cow and all other stores necessary to last through the procedure, or stay in Braintree and hope for the best? (Sitting and waiting for her future president husband John’s opinion didn’t seem sensible, especially since he was way down in Philadelphia concerning himself with minor matters, like the Declaration of Independence.)
Abigail chose the former, because she was smart and could understand statistics, so off they went in July 1776. She and her eldest son John Quincy got through the ordeal pretty quickly. The other children suffered more, Nabby becoming seriously ill and Charles and Thomas having to go through the procedure one or two more times before it took.
John Adams, for his part, entirely approved of his wife’s initiative. He’d undergone the same procedure during their courtship, after all, and promoted it afterwards. (During his convalescence, Abigail had to smoke all letters from him in a fire before reading them.)
Incidentally, Washington had all of his troops and his wife Martha inoculated because he understood statistics too.
I can only imagine what Abigail Adams would say about our current crop of anti-vaxxers. Partly because I’m not near as clever as her.