When the Spanish and Portuguese came to North and South America (the “new world”), they brought with them a novel disease, smallpox.
The disease decimated the local population and was instrumental in the fall of the empires of the Aztecs and the Incas. Similarly, on the eastern coast of North America, the disease was introduced by the early settlers and led to a decline in the native population.
Researchers believe that smallpox originated in Africa about 10,000 BCE, concurrent with the development of agriculture.
The disease greatly affected the development of Western civilization. The first stages of the decline of the Roman Empire (ad 108) coincided with a large-scale epidemic: the plague of Antonine, which accounted for the deaths of almost 7 million people. The Arab expansion, the Crusades, and the discovery of the West Indies all contributed to the spread of the disease.
Inoculation made its way to Europe in the 18th century. Someone would take a lancet covered with the pus from a smallpox sore and insert it subcutaneously into the arm or leg of the person who had not yet been infected. The method was not foolproof.
Although 2% to 3% of variolated persons died from the disease, became the source of another epidemic, or suffered from diseases (e.g., tuberculosis and syphilis) transmitted by the procedure itself, [inoculation] rapidly gained popularity among both aristocratic and common people in Europe.
In 1796, an English doctor “made the first step in the long process whereby smallpox, the scourge of mankind, would be totally eradicated.”
Edward Jenner administered the world’s first vaccination to prevent smallpox on 14 May 1796. Jenner was testing the theory that the liquid from a cowpox blister could prevent smallpox. He inoculated James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy.
Then on 01 July, Jenner inoculated Phipps with the pus from a smallpox sore. Phipps did not contract smallpox; the vaccine was a success.
Unlike vaccinations against Covid-19, the smallpox vaccine contained a live virus, one so similar to the smallpox virus that the body’s immune system has the tools it needs to repel the virus.
The vaccination leaves a distinctive scar. Health care providers administering the vaccine use bifurcated needles to deliver the vaccine to the proper depth (just under the epidermis).
The exposure to the virus tends to leave a sore and itchy bump behind. This bump later becomes a larger blister that leaves a permanent scar as it dries up.
The vaccine scar was a physical testament to vaccination. Just like in the current pandemic, some people forged vaccine certificates.
In the overcrowded tenement districts of cities like New York and Boston where smallpox spread with deadly speed, health officials enlisted policemen to help enforce vaccination orders, sometimes physically restraining uncooperative citizens.
Anti-vaccination sentiments never went away entirely, though, and some Americans even took to forging their vaccination scars. They did it by painfully exposing a patch of skin to nitric acid to produce the same nickel-sized scab and scar.
By 1970, global vaccination efforts had eliminated smallpox around the world.
— André Picard (@picardonhealth) March 17, 2021