Four weeks ago, my post in this blog was about the innovation of the cow-pox vaccination and how smallpox and vaccination may have intersected with Jane Austen’s life. There were so many interesting stories I came across while doing the research for that post, I’ve decided to share just a few of them today.
The origins of the procedure of variolation, where a small amount of live smallpox dust or fluid is introduced into a body to innoculate that person against the disease are not precisely known, with some sources claiming dates as far back as 200 BCE. It was being performed in China, Africa, and possibly India long before the practice was introduced in western society.
By the early 1700s, the practice of inoculation was common in Turkey, and In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had her five-year-old son undergo variolation in Constantinople. Lady Montagu, whose husband was ambassador to Turkey, had been disfigured by smallpox around 1715 and wished to see the procedure take root in England. She initially expressed concerns that finding a doctor who would administer it might be difficult because treating those suffering from the disease was a valuable source of revenue.
A few years later, in 1721, Lady Montagu was back in England and had her two-year-old daughter variolated. Her advocacy of the procedure initially drew criticism, as it was not without risk. Variolated persons did become ill and were contagious while the disease ran its course. Two to three percent of people who received the live smallpox virus died, in spite of efforts to use the mildest strain and a tiny dose to minimize the risk. In light of a death rate that was ten times higher when the smallpox virus was acquired through contagion, early adopters of variolation in England accepted the risk.
Lady Montagu’s persistence caught the attention of the British Royal Family, who ran a variolation trial, not on themselves, but first on prisoners in Newgate Prison. Satisfied that it was safe, the then Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach had her children variolated by the same doctor who had performed the service for Lady Montagu, Charles Maitland. This signal of faith in the procedure by royals paved the road for acceptance among the upper classes.
At the same time as variolation was gaining traction in England, the practice was introduced in the American Colonies. A smallpox epidemic struck Boston in April of 1721 when the HMS Seahorse arrived from the West Indies carrying smallpox contagion on board. Panic ensued in the city and many fled. Enter Cotton Mather, a New England Puritan minister who owned a slave named Onesimus who had been variolated as a child in Africa. Mather persuaded a Boston physician named Zabdiel Boylston to try variolation and when the test subjects, Boylson’s son and two of his slaves recovered within a week, the procedure was performed on 287 Bostonians before the end of that epidemic. Word of the process spread.
In November of 1736, the four-year-old son of Benjamin Franklin, Francis, died of smallpox. Fake news quickly spread, citing rumors that he had been inoculated, which Franklin addressed in this published denial:
“In 1736 I lost one of my Sons, a fine Boy of 4 Years old, taken by the Small Pox in the common way. I long regretted that I had not given it to him by Inoculation, which I mention for the Sake of Parents, who omit that Operation on the Supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a Child died under it; my Example showing that the Regret may be the same either way, and that therefore the safer should be chosen.”
In 1775, George Washington’s siege of Boston coincided with smallpox infections in the city. This situation exposed a weakness in the Colonial soldiers since the British troops occupying Boston had acquired herd immunity to smallpox either from variolation or suffering the disease in childhood where smallpox was endemic. The Continental Army soldiers had not been exposed, with few exceptions, one of which was Washington himself, who had survived a case of smallpox in 1751.
This vulnerability in the Continental Army played itself out the following year when a Continental Army force of 10,000 troops was stationed in Quebec. An epidemic of smallpox broke out in the camp and half of the troops fell ill. It was rumored at the time that a British commander, aware that they had not been inoculated against smallpox deliberately spread the disease by having recently variolated (and therefore contagious) civilians go into the camp. In May, the troops, their numbers decimated, were forced to retreat to the south, leaving Quebec to the British. Of this disastrous turn, John Adams wrote:
“Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt the heart of stone. The smallpox is ten times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together. This was the cause of our precipitate retreat from Quebec.”
This serious loss drove George Washington to mandate smallpox inoculation for the Continental Army troops in order to prevent their lack of immunity to smallpox from ever being exploited again.
I hope you enjoyed reading some of the stories leading up to the “discovery” of vaccination against smallpox. I was astounded by them. Please share your thoughts and any additional information you’re privy to in the comment section below.
Reference: History of Vaccines Timeline