Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Pandemic of Smallpox

Elaine Marie Cooper 

In this unfortunate year of a pandemic, much comparison has been made to the 1918 Spanish Flu. But there have been other deadly pandemics through the ages, most notably smallpox. Many contemporary medical experts have not even seen a patient with that disease. Its eradication has to do with the vaccine that was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796. But even prior to Jenner’s vaccination, another type of immunity-producing method known as variolation was devised. This was a crude method of inserting the infectious pustule of an individual suffering from smallpox into a scratch or laceration on the arm of a well person. The procedure was crude, painful and could lead to death. Yet the chances of surviving the process were greater than if the individual caught smallpox. The disease caught from another individual would increase one’s chances of dying of the disease. Variolation was first practiced in Eastern Europe and the western Asian countries. (That is where the virus seems to have reared its ugly head first, in the years B.C.) Western travelers who were afraid of contracting the terrible illness often requested their local doctors perform the procedure on them.

Symptoms of smallpox usually began with a fever, then progressed to eruption of pustules on the skin. These were no ordinary pox, however. They could destroy eyesight, disfigure someone’s face and leave cavernous evidence of their destruction. Some of the images online were so grotesque, I declined to add them to this post. Evidence of smallpox pustules was discovered on the mummified body of Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt, perhaps indicating his cause of death. With Global travel emerging in the 1400’s, the disease spread to southern Africa and the America’s. While it was often accidental, the contagious nature of the illness made it a perfect tool for a biological weapon. The native peoples of the Americas had no immunity to smallpox and often succumbed. The Spanish were able to conquer the Incas and Aztecs due to the susceptibility of the natives. By the 18th century, smallpox had, unfortunately, found a comfortable home in America, killing about 30% of its victims. Then the American Revolution broke out, along with an upsurge in cases of smallpox due to enemy troops from England and Germany carrying the disease. When the American troops gathered in Boston, cases among the militia soared. At a time when General Washington needed a fit army, many were seriously ill. Washington considered the crude method of variolation to immunize the soldiers but could little afford to have the enemy find out that large numbers of his army were incapacitated while they recovered from the process. He realized that timing was everything and he devised a plan to have all new recruits undergo the procedure. According to history.com, George Washington pulled off the first massive, state-funded immunization campaign in American history. This risky decision likely saved the day for America in the Revolutionary War. Fortunately, this disfiguring disease has been eradicated due to worldwide immunizations. It is considered the most successful achievement in international public health.

                                                                                                        Elaine Marie Cooper has a recent release, Scarred Vessels, which features the black soldiers in the American Revolution as well as some little-known history of Rhode Island. Her newly contracted Dawn of America series will begin releasing this April with Love’s Kindling. The series is set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her 2016 release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She has been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul and HomeLife magazine. She also penned the three-book historical series, Deer Run Saga. You can visit her website/ blog at www.elainemariecooper.com


  1. A tongue-in-cheek thanks for the post, but it's good to remember that we've been through these times before.

  2. I know, like, "Thanks for the awful picture while eating my breakfast!" Yes, knowledge of history Helps us understand the present. We live in a world beset by illness, the result of sin in Eden. Thanks for commenting, Connie.

  3. Welcome. Wow this is terrible. I never heard of variolation. Always learn something new here. I love this. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    1. You're very welcome, Lori. I always learn something new while researching. Praying your New Year is blessed!