A Monumental History Lesson

On July 4, 1863, Union soldiers began the arduous and grizzly task of burying over 7,000 dead bodies in trenches and shallow graves. Later, as rains had washed away the ground cover re-exposing the stench of blackened and gnarled limbs, the town of Gettysburg took on the task of exhuming the bodies and consecrating them in the newly created Soldiers National Cemetery.

At a dedication ceremony that November, a pale and weak looking President Abraham Lincoln, addressed the crowd. There was no social distancing and no one wore a mask.

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Depending on your view of presidential communication, it was either a very short speech or a very long tweet. At 272 words Lincoln was finished speaking in 3 minutes, before photographers or the fake news outlets could even set up cameras.

Despite partisan reaction to the speech as “flat”, “silly”, and “dishwatery”, his sparse words were to become etched in marble in a memorial bearing his name and in the memories of school children everywhere.

Lincoln departed Gettysburg that evening on Locomotive One. On the trip back he developed a fever, body aches, and extreme fatigue. And soon after returning to Washington, skin lesions. He had contracted smallpox.

As a young man, George Washington contracted smallpox too. He survived the deadly illness, but it left his face pockmarked and scarred. Contrary to a popular myth, the disease did not give him wooden teeth.

Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by the Variola virus. Given that it has been around for thousands of years, it is not novel. It is highly contagious, spread by airborne droplets or through contaminated objects like clothing and bedsheets and shopping carts.

In the 1900’s alone, over 300 million people died from smallpox.

The good news is that through strategic vaccination programs, smallpox was finally eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980. The bad news is that the Variola virus is alive and well in locked down laboratories located in Atlanta and Russia, ripe for movie plot bio terrorists to ransom the health of the world population.

But George Washington knew nothing about that. By the time he took over the Continental Army in 1775, a smallpox epidemic was surging in Boston, perhaps among young people crowding bars and beaches along the harbor.

Understanding the danger of the disease to cripple his troops, General Washington surreptitiously ordered the whole of his army to be inoculated through a rudimentary process championed by Ben Franklin, who lost a son to smallpox. The process, called variolation, rubbed the live smallpox virus taken from sick people into forearm cuts on healthy people because sharp needles hadn’t been invented yet. If everything went well, healthy people became mildly ill and developed immunity. If things didn't go well, healthy people died from smallpox.

After the bold and controversial inoculation, the infection rate within the Continental Army dropped to one percent enabling the healthy army and General Washington to, well, you know the rest. Crossing the Delaware and all.

On another fourth of July in 1930, a sixty foot memorial relief of George Washington’s face blasted with dynamite, hammers, and chisels from a granite wall in South Dakota was presented to the world by artist and sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.

I don’t know if Borglum ever had smallpox or not.

But after Washington, Borglum shifted his blasting caps down the mountain. Years later the likeness of Thomas Jefferson was eventually jack hammered into perpetuity, just left of George Washington.

Among his many other achievements as president, Jefferson worked to promote a newly discovered procedure that infected healthy people with the Vaccinia virus derived from cows in order to protect them from Variola. The “vaccination” process essentially gave people immunity to smallpox by exposing them to a much milder disease enticingly named cowpox.

The notion of willfully introducing a cow disease into the body was counterintuitive and not immediately accepted. But Jefferson, understanding the efficacy and science behind the new vaccine, defended and promoted its widespread use as a cheerleader, and increased adoption significantly reduced the spread of smallpox.

Yet smallpox didn’t disappear completely, as Abraham Lincoln discovered. As the disease waxed and waned in the 1800s, so did public perception of the vaccine and the whole vaccination process, which was beset with charlatan products and shoddy practices. Vaccination against smallpox was rightly seen by many as dangerous and when mandated for public safety, a violation of civil liberties.

But after a prolonged smallpox epidemic at the end of the 1800’s which killed and disfigured thousands of people despite the availability of a credible vaccine, President Theodore Roosevelt, trust buster and king of the bully pulpit, signed into law the Biologics Control Act to regulate drug products, specifically the smallpox vaccine. A few years later some tainted food was thrown in, and the Food and Drug Administration was born, ushering in an era of public health as a right of the people, for the people, and by the people.

By 1939 chiseled mountain stone had permanently revealed the faces of two more presidents.

There is a lot we can learn about presidential leadership from Mt Rushmore.