24 Facts About Smallpox That Turned Out to Be More Terrifying Than Any Apocalyptic Movie
In school history classes, we were told that in the Middle Ages, humanity was attacked by the plague pandemics. However, few people remember that our ancestors had to deal with a disease that was just as dangerous: smallpox was cutting down the population of Europe and Asia. It took people almost 4,000 years to understand how to destroy the virus and make sure the next generations are safe.
Bright Side looked into what this disease was that was a nightmare for the entire world and we also found out if there is a danger of another smallpox pandemic today.
What is smallpox?
- Smallpox is a very infectious viral infection that leads to fatal consequences. Its most evident signs are fever, a rash on the entire body, overall weakness, and a lot of complications. However, not everyone developed complications because about 30-50% of infected people never survived long enough for those to happen. Even today, humanity doesn’t have a specific way of treating this virus, so if there was a pandemic, doctors would use antibiotics and immunomodulators.
- Obviously, the situation in ancient times and the Medieval era was much worse: hundreds of thousands got infected with smallpox, died, or had to live with the terrible complications like blindness and scars. Due to the long incubation period (10-14 days), the sick had enough time to infect everyone around them. And because nobody knew even the simplest hygiene rules, the pandemic spread to different countries.
- Smallpox infected people in 3,000 B. C. Recently, archaeologists found the mummy of Ramses V with scars on his face. As it turned out, the diseases were presented to humanity by camels. The animals carried a virus that eventually mutated and became fatal to humans.
This is how the Medieval artists imagined camels.
- Compared to the smallpox pandemic, apocalyptic movies are just a fairytale for children. In order to get infected, you don’t even need close contact: the virus quickly spreads through the air. Of course, several thousand years ago, nobody had even heard about viruses, so ambassadors and merchants spread smallpox to even the most remote places without even intending to.
- In the 5th century A.D, smallpox “traveled” around the Asian countries. It killed a lot of people in China and Korea and 1/3 of the Japanese population. The pandemic also had a serious influence on geopolitics: big countries fell apart and wars were started. And doctors could only recommend a treatment with fish, rice, and boiled onion.
- According to beliefs in India, there was a smallpox goddess called Mariatale. She was shown as a young beautiful woman, wearing red clothes. The woman was so short-tempered that once she got really mad at her father and threw her golden necklace in his face. In the spots where the beads touched the skin, there were blisters. The Indians even made sacrifices for the goddess, but obviously, they were all pointless.
Indian smallpox goddess, Mariatale
- The disease got to the Old World on the ships of merchants and in the camels through the Great Silk Road. From the 6th to the 19th century, it killed about 400,000 people every year: the virus was spread both into the houses of poor people and into the palaces of kings.
- It even got to the point where there were almost no people in Europe that hadn’t had smallpox. In Germany, there was even a saying, “Few people will avoid love and smallpox” (“Von pocken und liebe bleiben nur wenige frei”). And in France in the 17th century, when the police were looking for a criminal, one distinctive feature could be, “No signs of smallpox.” So, it was easier to find a person who had signs of smallpox, than someone who didn’t.
- Medieval doctors treated smallpox with red clothing: it was believed that the infection was attracted by this color and it left the body of the person. And doctors definitely knew one thing: once a person had smallpox, they could never get it again.
Smallpox illustration, Japanese manuscript
- In the 17th century, children were not considered fully-fledged family members until they survived smallpox. Nobody could guarantee that a child would survive it. And all the parents could do was watch and hope.
- Face powder became very popular among women (and men) thanks to smallpox. After the disease, people’s faces were covered with terrible scars. Rich people covered their faces with powder to hide the signs of the disease. So, there were very few of those beautiful princesses that we read about in novels.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Maximilien Robespierre, Abraham Lincoln, and other famous people had smallpox. There is no way you’d be able to see the signs of smallpox on the portraits of these people because the artists purposefully didn’t show them. So, despite the fact that there was no Photoshop at the time, famous people wanted to look good anyway.
French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre: On the left is his portrait and on the right is the reconstruction of his face from his death mask.
How people found a way to tame and then even destroy the virus
- Doctors honestly tried to fight smallpox. Aside from the obviously naive methods like trying to scare away the evil spirits, Chinese doctors invented inoculation. This method is almost like a vaccine, the only difference was that a person got injected with an active strain of the smallpox virus. And the procedure was really effective: people actually didn’t have such a serious case of the disease. But inoculation was still more of a luck game: there was no way to predict how smallpox would affect each person.
Edward Jenner, the son of a village priest, a biologist, a surgeon, and a truly genius person figured out how to get rid of the pandemic. A milkmaid told Jenner that women of her profession never got infected with smallpox. The doctor started to watch these workers from farms and found out that they got infected with the cow form of the virus, had a low-grade fever, and then became immune to smallpox. This was how Jenner created a new type of vaccine (with some alterations) that saved people from the disease until the middle of the 20th century.
Edward Jenner performed the first vaccination against smallpox.
- The first person to get the vaccine was an 8-year-old orphan, James Phipps. As it often happens with great discoveries, the public and doctors didn’t think the new idea was viable, saying, “This is nonsense to give people animal’s diseases.”
- But at the beginning of the 19th century, people gradually accepted the importance of vaccinations. The Spanish sailors transported the vaccines to South and North America. While they were traveling through the Atlantic, they took orphans on their ships and injected them with the vaccines.
- According to some sources, the Spanish used smallpox as a bioweapon. The Native Americans died out because they weren’t immune to the virus.
Native Americans got sick after making contact with the Spanish conquistadors.
- The governments of huge countries (Russia, Great Britain, Spain) passed special laws about vaccinations. And after about 100 years, Europe tamed smallpox.
- By the 1950s, there were almost no smallpox cases in developed countries. Young doctors only saw it in textbooks. But in Africa, Asia, India, and South America, the virus still took hundreds of thousands of lives. Then, the world united against this common enemy. The UN made a decision about the mass vaccination of all of humanity. This was the first time in world history when doctors and scientists destroyed a virus with a vaccine.
But they made some mistakes:
- In 1959, in Moscow, a pandemic of smallpox almost broke out. An artist from Moscow Kokorekin visited India where he went to the cremation of a Brahmin. The artist returned to Moscow, but soon felt really bad and died in the hospital. When the doctors realized what the artist brought to Moscow, they alerted the army and the secret service and vaccinated the entire population of the city.
- In 1977, in Somalia, doctors recorded the last time someone had smallpox and they were going to let the world know that smallpox was completely destroyed. The scientists locked smallpox up in a lab.
- The last person to die of smallpox was a woman from Birmingham. And, by the way, this is the second largest city in Great Britain. 40-year-old Janet Parker worked in a medical lab where a leak of the virus happened in 1978. So, 5,000 people who made contact with Janet got the vaccine and aside from her, nobody else got sick.
In 1980, the World Health Organization claimed that smallpox was completely destroyed. Since about the 1970s-80s, there was no more smallpox vaccine given. This means that the modern generation is not immune to smallpox.
Janet Parker is the last recorded person to die of smallpox.
- Today, the virus only exists in 2 labs: Vector (Russia), and the CDC (US, Maryland). Today, it is believed that smallpox can’t be used as a bioweapon and humanity has nothing to be afraid of.
- In 2014, on a Maryland University campus, 6 forgotten vials were found. It turned out that inside the vials, there was a perfectly viable smallpox virus. The box was destroyed, but everyone got really worried. Experts believe that a situation like this could happen again.
US doctors practice their actions in case of a smallpox pandemic. The person in the bag is not dead: this is just a practice drill.
The fight against the smallpox pandemic is an example of how people from across the entire world can unite and beat an enemy we can’t even see. This disease changed the world map and brought a lot of misery and suffering, but thanks to its existence people invented vaccines for many other viruses.
Did you know these smallpox facts before? Tell us in the comment section below.