Fact Friday 337: Inoculation in the 18th Century - Powered by the Charlotte Museum of History

Fact Friday 337: Inoculation in the 18th Century - Powered by the Charlotte Museum of History

Happy Friday!

We know it’s April Fools' Day and, though we’re still patting ourselves on the back for our 2021 April Fools, we’re going to leave the jokes to the professionals. This past week also marked Doctor’s Day, a day meant to show support for the work of doctors and healthcare workers in our community. Considering the struggles of the last two years, we think it’s a day worth remembering.

Almost 240 years ago, James Rankin Alexander, the son of Hezekiah and Mary Alexander, was using his training as a doctor to help the community fight smallpox. Smallpox was not unfamiliar to the colonists, but it was contained primarily because of the small and spread-out population.

When the American Revolution started, troop gatherings and movements spread smallpox quickly, becoming an epidemic. Even though inoculation had been an effective tactic since the 1720s, many were skeptical of its safety and effectiveness since the process made a person infectious for a short period of time. Inoculation became more widespread after George Washington ordered all soldiers serving in the Continental Army get inoculated to protect them from the raging epidemic.

This record of John Sample’s account with James R(ankin) Alexander is from Sample’s estate papers. The account records the February 1781 inoculation of three people of Sample’s family by James Alexander. Interestingly, it also notes that interest was charged on the bill for 5 years. Other purchases include a purchase of beef cattle (maybe – the text here is a little illegible), and payment for attendance at an arbitration meeting. Payment on the account was apparently made by Hezekiah Alexander, James’ father, who was the executor of John Sample’s estate.

The appearance of British and Continental soldiers in Charlotte and the surrounding area in late 1780 brought the disease to the area and it quickly spread. The record above, from John Sample’s estate papers, records the fee due to James Rankin Alexander for inoculating “3 persons of his [John Sample’s] family” at one pound per person. After the inoculation, Sample’s family members would be quarantined for a week or so and may have had mild to moderate symptoms. Once they recovered, they would have lifetime immunity against the often-deadly disease.

As soldiers dispersed and immunity through inoculation or prior infection increased, smallpox returned to being a relatively rare disease. Beginning in the early 19th century, when Edward Jenner figured out how to use a less-dangerous strain to make inoculation safer (and coined the term “vaccine”), smallpox vaccination became more and more common. By the mid-twentieth century, it was eradicated in North America but was still widespread in Asia, South America, and Africa. Thirty years later, after improvements in needle technology and storage protocols as well as gargantuan efforts by the World Health Organization and other international bodies, smallpox was officially declared 100% eradicated. To date, it’s the only disease that has been successfully eradicated.

To learn more about the difference smallpox inoculation had during the Revolutionary War, read more from Mount Vernon.

Join the Museum for a tour of the Rock House this weekend and learn more about Revolutionary Charlotte!

Have a great weekend,

Angel Johnston

The Charlotte Museum of History


About The Charlotte Museum of History

The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.


Email chris@704shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!

“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin

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