Smallpox inoculation in Northumberland County - 1768

This advertisement for smallpox inoculation from John Smith of nearby Indian Creek in Northumberland County appeared in the Virginia Gazette on June 9, 1768. Doctors like Smith inoculated patients by placing small pieces of infectious matter in their arms and quarantining them until recovery.

Smallpox killed 10-30% of its victims and often left survivors blind or disfigured. Inoculation began in Boston in 1721 and spread to Virginia by the 1750s-1760s.

Robert “King” Carter called the disease a “fatal distemper to his countrymen.” When his son John contracted it while studying in London in 1717 Carter expressed his shock over what he called “this cruel discouragement to an English education.” Carter hoped that John would recover and then “’twill rejoice me that he had it.”

Six decades later, Carter’s grandson Robert Carter III, sick with a “Fever Heat” while in quarantine following an inoculation for smallpox, experienced what he called a “most gracious Illumination” that sparked a dramatic religious odyssey that saw him embrace first the Baptist faith and in his later years the teachings of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Robert Carter III’s religious journey played a critical role in his 1791 Deed of Gift, which ultimately emancipated over 500 enslaved people Carter owned on plantations in the Tidewater and Shenandoah.   

A smallpox outbreak struck Williamsburg in the fall of 1747, lasting about a year. Read more here: Encyclopedia Virginia | Colonial Williamsburg | History of Smallpox

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