How did America's leader fight a deadly epidemic?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

Experience is a good teacher. During the American Revolution a smallpox outbreak threatened to wipe out the Continental Army as it had thousands of Native Americans. Despite political opposition, George Washington, the army’s commander in chief, embraced science-based medicine, ushering in the new country’s first public health policy.

Washington's initial move: immediately isolating anyone suspected of infection and limiting outside contact. He “prevented a disastrous epidemic among the Continental troops,” historian Ann Becker says. The military forbade anyone in Boston from entering the military zone. But Washington did more than that, Andrew Lawler writes for National Geographic. He moved to contain the threat.

As a teenager, Washington had suffered from the disease, caused by a variola virus, which killed as many as one in two victims. He, like many of the soldiers who had previously been exposed to the virus, was immune. As the epidemic spread, however, thousands—including many soldiers—died.

Washington, in conflict with the Continental Congress, ordered all troops inoculated against the virus, arguing that “necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure.” The procedure, called variolation, was controversial because it entailed making a small incision in a patient’s arm and inserting a dose of the live virus—large enough to trigger immunity but small enough to prevent severe illness or death. Infection rates dropped from 20 percent to one percent.

As infection rates dropped, colonies lifted their bans on variolations, America’s first major public health legislation. Today, research teams around the world are trying to identify a vaccine to halt the spread of the new coronavirus that has infected more than 2.4 million people and killed more than 165,000 worldwide.

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The legacy of Washington’s order to inoculate his troops lived on: Here, Army recruits for World War II receive medical injections in Virginia in 1942.

See: How Louis Pasteur solved a medical mystery and saved lives.

Instagram photo of the day

Once a stain, then a tourist destination: Believed to be one of the first human settlements in Italy, the subterranean warrens in the city of Matera for centuries had been home to the poor. Considered a burden on Italy’s psyche, the people of of the community were forcibly cleared in the 1950s, but in recent years the city has seen the return of tourists, boutique hotels, and Hollywood film crews.

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Today in a minute

In The After: For those of you who think wages will skyrocket and everyone will have health insurance after the pandemic, a historian has some sobering news on what happened after the Black Death hit Europe in the 17th century. Wages for some farm laborers did go up, but there may have been fewer farmers and they may have been responsible for more land, argues Eleanor Janega of the London School of Economics. And sure, great art was practiced in Florence for a few extraordinarily wealthy patrons after the plague, but life expectancy kept going down, Janega wrote. “We all want something to look forward to as we watch our own society suffer, but there isn’t a way to historicize ourselves out of this situation,” she concludes. “The one honest insight we can take away from Black Death discourse is that humans have come through worse than this and kept going.”

Overshadowed no more: June Almeida first noticed it in chickens and mice. Men rejected the paper she wrote of the spiky virus, saying she just saw influenza. Then, in 1964, she saw the microscopic particles in a sick schoolboy. Suddenly, authorities accepted her discovery—and called it coronavirus, writes Nat Geo’s Sydney Combs. From London, Izzy Almeida thanked us for the article on her grandmother (here's a picture of the young Izzy with June.)

Before it was a COVID-19 mass grave: More than a million people are buried on New York City’s Hart Island. It once served as a training ground for soldiers of color, a prison for Confederate soldiers, an asylum for TB patients, a reformatory for wayward boys, and perhaps the biggest burial group for people felled by AIDS. Allison C. Meier details the crazy history of the islet off the Bronx, now a resting place for unclaimed bodies from the coronavirus pandemic.

Pirates of the Mediterreanean: Before they swashbuckled in the Caribbean, pirates roamed the seas off Greece, Italy, and modern-day Tunisia and Libya. The Mediterranean is, in fact, where the word "pirate" came from, writes Mark Woolmer for Nat Geo’s History magazine. Subscribers can read more here.

The big takeaway

Holy fire! Usually there are 10,000 pilgrims. This year, however, because of COVID-19, only a handful of people witnessed the Orthodox Easter ceremony marking a fire that is said to have spontaneously appeared inside the tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “To the hundres of millions of Orthodox believers,” writes Nat Geo’s Kristin Romey, “the Holy Fire symbolizes the resurrection of Jesus, and the appearance of the flame inside his tomb is an annual miracle whose arrival is anticipated and celebrated." Among the handful attending: a photographer for Nat Geo.

Subscriber exclusive: Was this the tomb of Jesus?

In a few words

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The last glimpse

Lost Viking highway: A shrinking ice patch in Norway is yielding its secrets—1,000-year-old horseshoes, sleds, and tools. But the key to the story of a mountain pass has been found in horse dung left by travelers who crossed the area centuries ago. “It dawned on us that we had found something really special,” archaeologist Lars Holger Pilø told Nat Geo. “We sort of hit the motherlode.” Pilø acknowledges his miraculous find is bittersweet, because it was revealed only by the dangerously warming of Earth. “It’s not a job you can do,” he says, “without a great sense of foreboding."

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Eslah Attar and Jen Tse selected the photos. Have an idea or a link for us? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Stay safe and healthy.

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