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History As It Happens

Oct 5, 2021

What comes to mind when you think of the 1770s? The Revolutionary War, probably. As the war for independence from Great Britain raged, so did the worst epidemic in colonial American history. From 1775 through the early 1780s, more than 130,000 people -- European colonists, enslaved African-Americans, Native American tribes -- died from smallpox as the virus spread across the continent. The outbreak was so terrible it compelled General George Washington to require inoculations of all Continental Army soldiers, even though inoculations carried their own risks. In this episode historian Elizabeth Fenn, the author of Pox Americana, discusses how people coped with the ravages of the disease, and why most people know so little about it today.