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Sunday, October 06, 2013

Dr. Azor Betts vs Smallpox and George Washington

Dr. Azor Betts (1740-1809) is a distant cousin of mine. His mother was Mary Beldon and I descend from another Mary Beldon who is a cousin of Dr. Azor Betts' mother. Our common ancestor is Daniel Belden (1648-1732) of Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Dr. Betts' father was Nathan Betts and I'm also related to him through my ancestor Tama Betts (1754 - ).

Dr. Azor Betts was a physician in New York city at the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776. At the time there was a smallpox epidemic in the city and other parts of the colonies. George Washington had issued an order that no soldier of the Continental Army should be inoculated. In spite of this order Dr. Betts inoculated several officers at their urging.

Betts was arrested and George Washington issued a second order ...
The General presents his Compliments to the Honorable The Provincial Congress, and General Committee, is much obliged to them, for their Care, in endeavoring to prevent the spreading of the Small-pox (by Inoculation or any other way) in this City, or in the Continental Army, which might prove fatal to the army, if allowed of, at this critical time, when there is reason to expect thay may soon be called to action; and orders that the Officers take the strictest care, to examine into the state of their respective Corps, and thereby prevent Inoculation amongst them; which, if any Soldier should presume upon, he must expect the severst punishment.

Any Officer in the Continental Army, who shall suffer himself to be inoculated, will be cashiered and turned out of the army, and have his name published in the News papers throughout the Continent, as an Enemy and Traitor to his Country.

Upon the first appearance of any eruption, the Officer discovering of it in any Soldiers, is to give information to the Regimental Surgeon, and the Surgeon make report of the same, to the Director General of the hospital.
Dr. Azor Betts continued to give inoculations to officers of the Continental Army so he was arrested and imprisoned. He was freed when the British took over New York and the Continental Army retreated to New Jersey.

Dr. Betts became an officer in the Kings American Regiment (a Loyalist regiment) and later on was a surgeon in the Queen's Rangers. At the end of the war he moved his family to New Brunswick (Canada) and then to Nova Scotia where many of his descendants still live.


  1. So why exactly did Washington not accept vaccination? Obviously it was a long time before the modern anti-vaccination movement so I'm curious as to what it was?
    Cool story though.

  2. Washington may simply have not known enough about inoculation to realize that on the whole, inoculation was better than not inoculating. Check the date: 1776. At that time, smallpox inoculation was relatively new and untested, and about 2% of inoculated patients died from it. Smallpox itself wasn't exactly a walk in the park, to be sure, and that's why many people back then felt that inoculation was preferable anyway.

  3. Were the 2% of inoculated patients who died from it inoculated by physicians? In one of his historical novels, Rabble in Arms, Kenneth Roberts tells of some of the 'Rabble' inoculating others of their company with scrapings from patients sick with Smallpox. I cannot say for sure that the account had any historical basis. Incidentally, another of Roberts' novels, Oliver Wiswell, gave an account of the Revolutionary War from the viewpoint of a Loyalist, the person for whom the novel was named. His family, like that of Dr. Betts, moved to Canada.

    1. It wouldn't matter whether you got inoculated by a physician or by someone else. In those days physicians had as bad hygiene as everybody else, and before William Jenner's work in the 1790s, the inoculation was not with cowpox, but with actual (gulp!) smallpox.

  4. That was really interesting,
    Voltaire explained the origins of vaccinination coming from the Balkans and humble people if I remember.
    I read somwhere Benjamin Franklin opposed vaccination early in his life. People though it would hurt people and maybe spread it. General George was told this by medical advisors probably.
    I guess the doc was right to resist. Just as today Pro-life Docs must resist involvement in abortion.
    However George and the new americans were the good guys morally and intellectually in those days. The British were morally wrong trying to kill the Yankees to get their way of enslaving Englishmen because they lived far off across the sea.
    If the Yanks had not won we would not be Canadians today,
    Just more Yanks this way.

  5. If you really think that 'George and the new americans' were the good guys you should read the Kenneth Roberts book, Oliver Wiswell. Or, failing that, google Loyalists in the American Revolution, and click on the Wikipedia article. The third motivation for the loyalists, about burning houses and tarring and feathering, should give you a clue.

    1. Off thread maybe but there is a anti American agenda in most modern research on Americas past.
      I understand injustices against the Loyalists but its not a accurate sample of character.
      In any war, which is hostile aggression by serious means, there is in the spectrum hearts of gold and evil hearts on both sides. Even if percentages are not even.
      It was the great cause and the general character that makes the Yanks the good guys and the Brits the bad guys. Including loyalists depending on the man.
      Its a great evil that some Loyalists joined with Indians and murdered/genocide against the Yanks in northern areas. Butlers rangers etc.
      I don't define evolutionists by the worst guys and don't want creationists defined by our worst guys.
      Inaccurate sampling has been behind much of mankinds problems.

  6. My ancestors were kicked out and had their house burned (in the Carolinas) by the British because the husband was absent fighting with the Colonials. These things happen in war...

    As for smallpox, this site says that

    Washington... was initially hesitant to have his Revolutionary War troops inoculated during a smallpox outbreak, writing, “should We inoculate generally, the Enemy, knowing it, will certainly take Advantage of our Situation.” However, by 1777, faced with mounting smallpox epidemics, battle delays caused by illness among the troops, and fear among potential fighters of getting smallpox if enlisting, Washington devised an elaborate plan to deal with smallpox. Washington ordered mandatory inoculation of all recruits who had not had the disease.

    If I had to bet, I would bet old George suspected Dr. Betts of having loyalist leanings, and that his inoculations might be useful to the enemy.