Smallpox was an extremely infectious viral disease that often horribly disfigured and killed those who were unfortunate enough to contract the virus. Declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980, smallpox plagued the planet for centuries, killing on average 400,000 per year in Europe alone in the 18th Century. Because of its high mortality rate (three deaths out of every ten infected) and the physical suffering caused by the virus, outbreaks in a community engendered great fear. The elimination of entire families was not uncommon.
Efforts to fight infection from the virus included inoculation, a crude process that required the transfer of infected materials into healthy individuals. While inoculation was somewhat effective — it was used with success by George Washington on his troops during the American Revolutionary War and by Abigail Adams on herself and her children—it also proved deadly.
Finally, at the end of the 1700s came a breakthrough. English physician Edward Jenner had long heard tales from dairymaids of immunity to smallpox as a result of prior cowpox infections, a viral skin disease similar to but much milder than smallpox. Jenner ran trials and concluded that the dairymaids were correct; cowpox infection created an immunity to smallpox. Jenner developed a vaccine and began publishing his conclusions in England in 1796, initially to mixed reviews and resistance. Nevertheless, anecdotal confirmations of his theory soon began to spread. Enter Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse.
Dr. Waterhouse was born and raised in Rhode Island and received medical training in London, Scotland, and the Netherlands. He returned to America in 1782 and became a Fellow at the Rhode Island College (today Brown University), a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a faculty member at the new Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Waterhouse became aware of Jenner’s work and wrote letters to President John Adams, a prior roommate while studying in the Netherlands, and Vice President Thomas Jefferson regarding the vaccine. Jefferson offered support, and on July 8, 1800, Waterhouse performed the first smallpox vaccinations in the United States on his own four children, ultimately leading to the total eradication of the disease on the North American continent.