Smallpox inoculations during the Civil War?

major bill

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During the Civil War did the US army use Smallpox inoculations on its soldiers?

Inoculation a.k.a. variolation started in China over 1,000 years ago. From China it spread through Asia and parts of Africa. It was practiced in the Ottoman Empire. Smallpox inoculations moved to Europe and in 1721 it was first recorded as being done in Massachusetts.

In China people inhaled powder made from smallpox scabs but in Europe and the United States smallpox scabs were scratched with a sharp object and the person getting inoculation was then scratched with the sharp object. This was fairly successful in lowering the number of deaths from Smallpox. I am not sure I have ever read of the widespread use of Smallpox inoculation on soldiers during the Civil War.
 

lelliott19

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Yes. Vaccinations were widespread. Youll find them recorded for men of both sides. This is a snip from a medical examination for a trooper of the 1st DC Cav.
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Also see this discussion of vaccination from a while back
https://civilwartalk.com/threads/vaccinations-during-the-civil-war.119133/#post-1226457
 

John Winn

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In can say that civilians out here were getting vaccinated during the war years as well. There were a number of smallpox epidemics here and many died. As with today, many refused to get vaccinated. The town where I do my cemetery work actually passed laws in 1869 making it a crime not to get vaccinated but, still, a number didn't. Smallpox continued to be a periodic problem into the 1920s.
 

lelliott19

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Richmond Enquirer., May 14, 1861, page 2.
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Richmond Enquirer., May 28, 1861, page 4.

I have seen a number of carded records where the complaint is listed as "vaccination disease" - some kind of reaction to the vaccination which I assume included a fever and possibly a slight case of small-pox.

This article below mentions Erysipelas following vaccination which makes sense because, even though they didn't know it at the time, erysipelas is a bacterial infection. Most certainly bacteria was being transmitted, along with the (hopefully) small quantity of the small pox virus. Interestingly, the recommended "solution" was to ensure the vaccination matter was taken from healthy persons. They had no idea that the streptococcus bacteria causing the erysipelas could be present on the skin of healthy donors or on the skin of the person being vaccinated.
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lelliott19

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So the army intentionally gave soldiers a less deadly case of Smallpox?
Well, not always. But they were using the ooze scraped from the scabs of people who had smallpox for the "vaccination material." I guess it was inevitable that some cases would result since the vaccination used live smallpox virus.
 

kyle.dalton

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Part of the issue in wading through sources is modern confusion between "vaccination" and "innoculation." These terms are synonyms in the current medical lexicon, but from Jenner's discovery in the 1790's until well after the Civil War they referred to two distinct treatments.

Innoculation was the use of a less virulent strain of smallpox to grant immunity against the disease. It had a chance of contacting the full disease, carriers were contagious, and there were fatalities associated with its use, but was a less lethal alternative to naturally contracting the disease.

Vaccination was the use of cowpox to confer immunity. It was far safer with no chance of contracting smallpox or spreading it to others.

Both methods were used during the war.
 
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NH Civil War Gal

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If you used inoculation, it could take up to three weeks to recover from the sickness resulting from it. And they were supposed to have segregated quarters for people who were inoculated. How strictly that was enforced, I don’t know.
 

Joshism

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I'm curious about this topic because Rick Atkinson's book on the American Revolution makes frequent mention of smallpox outbreaks and some clumsy, often unsanctioned, attempts at inoculation. I wonder how little things had changed between the 1770s and 1860s?
 

John Winn

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Part of the issue in wading through sources is modern confusion between "vaccination" and "innoculation." These terms are synonyms in the current medical lexicon, but from Jenner's discovery in the 1790's until well after the Civil War they referred to two distinct treatments.

Innoculation was the use of a less virulent strain of smallpox to grant immunity against the disease. It had a chance of contacting the full disease, carriers were contagious, and there were fatalities associated with its use, but was a less lethal alternative to naturally contracting the disease.

Vaccination was the use of cowpox to confer immunity. It was far safer with no chance of contracting smallpox or spreading it to others.

Both methods were used during the war.
Interesting. My first wife's grandfather was a Marine in WWI and was sent to Haiti after the war to help deal with the flu epidemic. They all had to get a smallpox vaccination but, having been a farmer, my wife's grandfather had contracted a case of cowpox in his younger days and so the doctors said he didn't have to get vaccinated.
 

Jim-Jammi

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The museum of civil war medicine has a good blog post about this! The process was more painful than today's vaccinations, and exposed patients to nasty side effects. Injection site infections could become life threatening and occasionally the similarity between smallpox boils and syphillitic boils led soldiers to unknowingly infecting themselves with syphilis! Yikes!

https://www.civilwarmed.org/surgeons-call/small_pox/ View attachment 402626
I dont like the size of that lancet. Ouch!

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Tim Holcomb

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Very interesting thread! My maternal great grandfather from NW Arkansas served with the Union (while my paternal GGF from SW Ark served with the Confederacy as an Assistant Surgeon) and received a vaccination with an "unknown spurious matter" in November 1863. This was presumed to be a smallpox inoculation. Over 300 soldiers in his regiment received this inoculation and many became ill. My GGF had to be hospitalized for a month in Fort Smith, AR but was able to return to duty in early 1864. Some in his regiment never fully recovered and were discharged from duty. He was said to have chronic skin infections after this and I wonder if this might have been a chronic, relapsing form of erysipelas. I did read a report that some soldiers contracted syphilis after receiving a smallpox inoculation.
 
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