A view from Dave Trott: The clarity of desperation
A view from Dave Trott

The clarity of desperation

Strange that those Americans who pride themselves most on being patriotic are anti-vaxxers.

Many years ago George Washington, perhaps the greatest patriot of all, decided to make vaccinations mandatory.

Historians agree that, without those vaccinations, America could have lost the war and would not now be a country but a British colony. 

What happened was, in 1776, smallpox was killing a huge chunk of Washington’s army and spreading fast.

It didn’t affect the British troops because most had survived smallpox when they were young, so they were immune.

But at one point, 90% of the deaths among American Continental Regulars were caused by disease, not by British troops.

So Washington had to make a decision, he had three choices.

Wait for herd immunity: let nature take its course and let many die.

Quarantine: lock the troops away so they couldn’t fight.

Inoculation: risk an experimental procedure that might work. 

This is pretty much what we’d call a no-brainer, the first two are definitely losing strategies, the third was a gamble but at least it was a chance.

It was called variolation and involved making a cut into the arm and inserting a thread into the incision that had been dipped in the pus from an infected person.

The Continental Congress had banned variolation in 1776.

But Washington, owing to the clarity of desperation, over-rode them.

Of course this form of treatment was crude and people died, but 5% died instead of 30%.

In 1777, he wrote to John Hancock: “The smallpox has made such headway in every quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole army in the natural way. 

“I have therefore determined, not only to inoculate all the troops now here, but shall order Doctor Shippen to inoculate the new recruits as fast as they come into Philadelphia.”

And so, instead of having a dying army, Washington won the war and a country.

Of course, he didn’t discover the actual vaccine for smallpox, that was Edward Jenner in England 20 years later, in 1796.

Jenner noticed milkmaids, who had contracted cowpox, were immune to smallpox.

He had heard of variolation and wondered whether this might be better.

So he took some pus from a sore on an infected milkmaid’s hand and scratched it into the arm of his gardener’s son. 

Then he exposed the boy to smallpox victims, and the boy remained uninfected.

In 1801, Jenner published his paper: On the Origin of Vaccine Inoculation.

By the 20th century, the entire planet was inoculated, and the last person died of it in 1978. 

In 1980 the World Health Organisation declared the world free of smallpox. 

But the interesting part for us is Washington’s dilemma.

If he inoculated his army, then 5% would die.

But if he did nothing, then 30% of his men would die and he would lose the war.

There was NO situation in which no-one dies, much as he would have preferred it.

While we are sitting around discussing a perfect solution that does not exist, we do nothing which means we lose control of the situation.

This was the real-life version of “The Trolley Problem”, the philosophical thought-experiment: if you do nothing, four men die, if you pull a lever one man dies, what do you do? 

Most of us freeze because of the paralysis caused by evading responsibility.

Most of us would rather suffer the consequences of inaction

What saved George Washington was the “clarity of desperation”.

Those of us in advertising should could learn from that.

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three