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Escape into Medical History: Smallpox

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Edward Jenner (1749–1823).
Photo courtesy of the
National Library of Medicine.
Discovered here.
Have you ever thought it might be fun to have lived at a different time in history? No computers, no phones, no airplanes. You may immediately think, no way! I like those conveniences. There are pros and cons to many aspects of living during different historical time periods. However, the lack of current day medical practices and our extensive knowledge of disease is something I wouldn’t want to leave behind if time travel were possible.

You wouldn’t want to have the need for surgery because chances are that you wouldn’t get it (they rarely performed surgical operations) and you’d die, or you would get it and you’d die, or if you were that sick you’d just want to be left alone to die. Medicine is one of those things that I wouldn’t want to give up if I could escape into Regency England (one of my favorite eras) for a year or so.

Did you know that Edward Jenner discovered the vaccine for smallpox in late 18th century England? I doubt many high school students know about smallpox today unless they watch movies on bioterrorism, etc. Isn’t it scary that a disease that was virtually wiped out by 1977 could be resurrected for horrifying purposes?

Jenner used the pus and infectious matter of a dairymaid’s cowpox to inoculate a small boy in 1796. Do you want to know what that looked like? Probably not but I’ll tell you. He scraped inside nasty looking wounds on Sarah Nelm’s (dairymaid’s) hand and arm, gathered the infection, created two small incisions in the boy’s (James Phipps) arm and spread the pus into the incisions. You can read more here about the method of variolation here.

From Wikipedia, Jenner's Theory:

The initial source of infection was a disease of horses, called "the grease", which was transferred to cows by farm workers, transformed, and then manifested as cowpox.More here. For more on the great and terrible scourge go here.
Did you know the history of smallpox inoculation? Did any of this surprise you? Brings a whole new meaning to the saying, "A pox upon you!" Of course in that day if they didn't mean smallpox they probably meant syphilis. That's another post.

cowpock_treatment_color_lg   From an etching by James Gillray (1757-1815) 1802 caricature of Jenner vaccinating patients who feared it would make them sprout cowlike appendages. From Wikipedia.              


  1. Hi Jillian! Did you know that variolation was somewhat common during the American Revolutionary War? Washington instituted it amoung the troops as a way to prevent the spread of the disease that wiped out half of his army.

    I'm with you in that I love history and wish we had many of the manners and niceties they enjoyed. I'm still glad I live now, though, and have modern medicine. Just imagine what our great-grandchildren might have!

  2. Hi Babette,
    I had no idea that variolation was common during the American Revolutionary War. Thanks, Babette. I'm so research oriented on England most of the time that I hadn't really thought about it. Of course I had to go looking for more info that related to both. Here's a link you and others may find interesting. I know I did.