Smallpox and the Smallpox Vaccine

The Spread of Smallpox

Smallpox is widely considered one of the most devastating illnesses to have ever occurred in human history. It has, singlehandedly, shaped and destroyed entire civilizations and paralyzed people with fear.

Historians believe the infection originated roughly 3,000 years ago and 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, the virus killed an estimated 300 million people globally.


The infection is highly contagious and manifests itself in bumps, almost like chickenpox, over one’s face, body, and internal organs. The virus would kill roughly thirty percent of those who transmitted it.

The Miracle of Vaccination

Incredible strides were made in Europe and the United States in the 1700s to inoculate populations from the infection. Cotton Mather (1663 —1728), a prominent reverend from Boston had “learned of those in London who were attempting to protect their children from the ravages of smallpox by intentionally infecting them in a process called inoculation.” Mather was one of the very first advocates for this process of inoculation in the United States. A key breakthrough in discovering the 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.”

Painting of Dr. Edward Jenner and his early vaccination process

Painting of Dr. Edward Jenner and his early vaccination process

By the mid 1800s in America, smallpox, however, was still 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, on what is now known as Roosevelt Island, in order to help contain the virus and prevent its spread. After the vaccine became more widely used in America and the virus became more contained, the Smallpox Hospital began to serve a broader population of the infirm. The hospital changed its name to Riverside Hospital.

World Health Organization

World Health Organization scientists

World Health Organization scientists

Many years later, in 1967, a year when roughly 10 to 15 million people contracted the virus in countries around the world, 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. While there is no cure for the disease, this highly accessible vaccine provides total immunity from it.

World Health    medical journal reads "Smallpox is Dead!"

World Health medical journal reads "Smallpox is Dead!"

Research comes from:

Brown University's Smallpox in the AmericaS 1492 to 1815: Contagion and Controversy by Stanley M. Aronson and Lucile Newman

National Geographic's Conquered Killer