Skip to main content
The College of Physicians of Philadelphia Digital Library

Document authorizing Dr. David Townsend, Surgeon General, to appropriate a private house as a hospital for the Continental Army in April 1776

Document authorizing Dr. David Townsend, Surgeon General, to appropriate a private house as a hospital for the Continental Army in April 1776

Handwritten note, 19 x 10 cm, with irregular borders and folding, written in a single legible hand on laid paper, otherwise in very fine condition.

It states “Permit Doct. David Townsend to take possession of the home belonging to the Heirs of John Gould, Esq. for a Hospital for two Regiments in the Continental Service. Boston, April 4th, 1776. Jn. G. Frazer, AQMG

David Townsend was the Surgeon General of the 6th Continental Army at the time that this note was written. In the Spring of 1776, General Washington was concerned about the effects of smallpox on his non-inoculated troops. General George Washington certainly believed in the efficacy of inoculation, in May of 1776 he ordered that no one in his army be inoculated; violations of this order would result in severe punishment. The summer campaigns were about to begin, and Washington could not afford to have a large number of his men incapacitated for a month and vulnerable to attack by the British. Washington eventually instituted a system by which new recruits would be inoculated with smallpox immediately upon enlistment. In this way, they would contract the milder form of the disease at the same time they were being outfitted with uniforms and weapons. They would, consequently, be completely well, and supplied, by the time they marched off to join the main part of the army or, as Washington expressed it, “in a short space of time we shall have an Army not subject to this, the greatest of all calamities that can befall it, when taken in the natural way.” During the summer of 1776, when smallpox threatened the populations of Boston and Philadelphia, as well as the Continental Army, Dr. David Townsend, the Surgeon General of the Sixth Continental Army, supplied medicines for soldiers suffering from smallpox during July and August. According to one medical historian, credit for the fact that smallpox did not have more serious consequences during the Revolution should go directly to George Washington “due to the unusual precautions exercised for its prevention by inoculation.” It is possible that the appropriation of this house was for purposes of inoculation and/or isolation of the 6th Infantry for smallpox, as eventually ordered by General Washington in May of 1776.

The signatory, Jn. G. Frazer is likely John Gizzard Frazer (b. 1740) from Massachusetts. He served in the Continental Army as Assistant to Quartermaster General from September 22nd to December 1775, and was a Major in the 6th Continental Infantry from the 1st of January to December 31st, 1776, the period when this note was written. In 1777, Major Frazer was given passage to France aboard the warship Ranger by John Paul Jones.

Contributed by anonymous