A Brief History of Smallpox and the Smallpox Vaccine

"Smallpox is Dead!" World Health Organization, 1967

"Smallpox is Dead!" World Health Organization, 1967

Smallpox is widely considered one of the most devastating illnesses to ever occur in human history. It has shaped and destroyed civilizations and there is still no cure. The disease existed well before the Smallpox Hospital opened. Scientists and historians believe it originated roughly 3,000 years ago. According to National Geographic’sConquered Killer,” the Smallpox virus was one of the main reasons for the decline of both the Aztec Empire and the Inca population. In the 18th century in Europe, Smallpox claimed up to 60 million people, and in the 20th century, it is believed that the virus killed an estimated 300 million people globally.

U.S. Health Department Campaign to encourage vaccination, Library of Congress

U.S. Health Department Campaign to encourage vaccination, Library of Congress

The Smallpox virus is highly contagious and it manifests itself in bumps, almost like chickenpox, which break out over one’s face and body. Historically, the virus killed roughly thirty percent of those who contracted the disease. By the mid 1800s in America, Smallpox was quite common. New York officials felt it imperative to construct the Smallpox Hospital, which would be the first U.S. hospital dedicated to the disease. The hospital was located apart from the island of Manhattan in order to help contain the virus and prevent its spread.

The Smallpox Hospital could treat up to one hundred patients at a time. Many of those who were inflicted with the disease died at the hospital. Those who survived eventually returned to their respective homes. The hospital also treated many veterans of the Civil War who contracted the virus in battle.

A depiction of Edward Jenner and his early vaccination techniques

A depiction of Edward Jenner and his early vaccination techniques

Incredible strides were made both in Europe in the late 1700s as well as by the World Health Organization in the 1960s that eventually led to the complete eradication of the disease. While there is no cure for the disease, there is now a highly accessible and affordable vaccine that provides total immunity from it. According to National Geographic, the key breakthrough in discovering this vaccine “came in 1796 when an experiment by English doctor Edward Jenner showed that inoculation using closely related cowpox could protect against Smallpox. Jenner's discovery paved the way for later vaccination programs.”

In 1967, “a year when some 10 million to 15 million people contracted Smallpox,” the World Health Organization launched a successful worldwide eradication campaign with the vaccine in hand. The last occurrence of the disease was in Somalia in 1977.

World Health Organization doctors at work on the Smallpox vaccine, World Health Organization

World Health Organization doctors at work on the Smallpox vaccine, World Health Organization