Jonathan got the vaccine…

There were a lot of deadly, infectious diseases in 19th-century North America. When Jonathan M. Clark was young, the causes and cures for most of these illnesses were a mystery. Germ theory was unknown, and for many people hygiene was, at best, a hit-or-miss affair. But even in that era, we can be certain Jonathan M. Clark was inoculated against one of the worst recurring plagues of all time: smallpox.

General Regulations of the U.S. Army, 1821, Art. 73, no. 90

As a new recruit to the U.S. Army, Jonathan M. Clark was subject to the army’s regulations, including article 73, number 90:

Click to open larger image in new window. Original via Internet Archive

90. Whenever a recruit arrives at the post, garrison, station, or depot, to which a surgeon is attached, or joins the regiment or corps to which he belongs, it shall be the duty of the surgeon forthwith to ascertain whether he has had the variolous or vaccine infection, and if he has not, to see that he be vaccinated as soon as practicable; and for this purpose he shall constantly keep good matter on hand, making application to the surgeon general for a fresh supply, as often as may be necessary.

George Washington’s idea

The U.S. Army had been inoculating new recruits against smallpox since Gen. George Washington began the practice out of necessity, starting around 1777. Many of the recruits to Washington’s Continental Army came from rural, relatively isolated communities in the American colonies; few of these rural recruits had been exposed to smallpox before the war. During the early years of the Revolution, many recruits lived in crowded army camps or were posted to cities where smallpox was active, and were incapacitated or killed by the disease.

Washington’s vaccination order led to a substantial improvement in the health and readiness of the Continental Army and made it a more potent fighting force. After the war, the inoculation requirement (for all recruits that had not already had smallpox or the inoculation) remained part of the regulations of the new United States Army.

Protecting the community

In my research, I spend a lot of time looking at vital records, including death records. I can tell you that from the late-1830s onward, a heart-breaking number of Mequon residents—newborns, children, adults and elders—died from then-virulent diseases such as measles, pertussis, diphtheria, pneumonia and others, all of which are now preventable with standard vaccines.

Our one photo of Jonathan M. Clark is a little blurry, but appears to show a middle-aged Jonathan with no visible smallpox scars; we have no other evidence that JMC ever had smallpox. So it’s possible that Jonathan M. Clark—as the only early Mequon settler known to have served in the army prior to 1840—was the first Mequon resident to have been inoculated against any disease.2

Vaccines work. This was true for Gen. Washington’s recruits in 1777, and Pvt. Jonathan M. Clark and his companions at Ft. Howard in 1833. It’s still true for us, today. Even smallpox, once the scourge of millions, was completely eradicated after a concentrated, world-wide vaccination program lasting from 1959 to 1980.

For over a year we have been struggling with a new pandemic, and we now have safe and effective vaccines to help fight Covid-19. I hope you will follow Washington’s and JMC’s examples and get vaccinated as soon as you can.

Meanwhile, stay safe. Wear a mask. Be well.


  1. I am aware of the difference between inoculation with cowpox pustules to prevent smallpox (variolation), versus its modern successor, vaccination. I also find it interesting that the language of the Army’s 1821 regulations requiring the surgeon to determine whether the new recruit “has had the variolous or vaccine infection, and if he has not, to see that he be vaccinated as soon as is practicable…” I think if the Army—and Edward Jenner—can mix the two terms for their purposes, so can I for mine.

  2. It’s possible that there were other vaccinated army veterans in the first cohort of Mequon settlers, perhaps older men that served in the War of 1812. To date, I am not aware of any pre-1840 army veterans—other than Jonathan M. Clark—in early Mequon or elsewhere in Washington/Ozaukee County.

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