The idea behind this radical new treatment came from Africa, specifically from a slave named Onesimus, who shared his knowledge with Cotton Mather, the town’s leading minister and his legal owner. Boston still suffered dreadfully, but thanks to Onesimus and Mather, the terror linked to smallpox began to recede after Africans rolled up their sleeves—literally—to show Boston how inoculation worked. The story of how Boston began to overcome smallpox illustrates the strife that epidemics can cause, but also the encouraging notion that humans can communicate remedies as quickly as they communicate germs—and that the solutions we most need often come from the places we least expect to find them.
Mather had come close to choosing a career in medicine, and devoured the scientific publications of the Royal Society in London. As the society began to turn its attention to inoculation practices around the world, Mather realized that he had an extraordinary expert living in his household. Onesimus was a “pretty Intelligent Fellow,” it had become clear to him. When asked if he’d ever had smallpox, Onesimus answered “Yes and No,” explaining that he had been inoculated with a small amount of smallpox, which had left him immune to the disease. Fascinated, Mather asked for details, which Onesimus provided, and showed him his scar. We can almost hear Onesimus speaking in Mather’s accounts, for Mather took the unusual step of writing out his words with the African accent included—the key phrase was, “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”
Excited, he investigated among other Africans in Boston and realized that it was a widespread practice; indeed, a slave could be expected to fetch a higher price with a scar on his arm, indicating that he was immune. Mather sent the Royal Society his own reports from the wilds of America, eager to prove the relevance of Boston (and by extension, Cotton Mather) to the global crusade against infectious disease. His interviews with Onesimus were crucial. In 1716, writing to an English friend, he promised that he would be ready to promote inoculation if smallpox ever visited the city again.
American History, but something I think a lot of people would be interested to read.
Though often used as a synonym of “isolation” (where sick people are kept from well people), quarantine is technically defined as “to separate those suspected of exposure to an illness to see if they become ill” - hence the quarantine laws for livestock and pets when moving between countries, especially countries where rabies or hoof-and-mouth disease isn’t endemic.
These signs were posted on houses and farms that had a patient (and, as such, exposed family or herd members) infected with, from top to bottom, hoof-and-mouth disease, scarlet fever, diphtheria, smallpox, and poliomyelitis.
It really blows my mind that so many New Yorkers are unaware that, right in the East River, off the Bronx, there sits 20 acres of abandoned island with a storied history. North Brother Island was many things over the years - it opened as an extension of Riverside Hospital in 1885, treating smallpox patients overflowing from the Renwick building on Blackwell’s Island. During this period, it was home to “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, and was the site of the wreck of the General Slocum. Closing in the late 30s, it reopened again in the 40s to provide housing for GIs who had come back from the war, and finally, from 1953-1963, was a draconian drug rehab facility for court ordered juvenile offenders. Abandoned now for over half a century, the island has faded into memory for most of New York City. Pictured here is a room on the top floor of the Nurses’ Building in winter; while clearly the building isn’t in great shape - and vines are climbing in through the window - it’s held up rather well over time.
A cow head will not erupt from your body if you get a smallpox vaccine.
But fear of inoculation was so wide-spread that British satirist James Gillray published this cartoon in 1802. The captions reads “The Cow Pock, or the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation- the Publication of the Anti Vaccine Society.”
Caubvick (fl. 1773) was an Inuk from Labrador, a wife of one of George Cartwright’s Inuit friends. The highest peak in all of Labrador and east of the Rockies is named in her honour, Mount Caubvick.
In 1773, George Cartwright took Attuiock and Tooklavina and their wives, including Caubvick, to England where they met with the king, members of the Royal Society and James Boswell The Inuit all developed smallpox while in England. Caubvick was the only survivor of the group. She returned to her native Labrador and passed on the dreaded disease to many of her people.
We found some forgotten variola (smallpox) at the FDA laboratories in Bethesda, Maryland! They were fully sealed and there’s no evidence of tampering, and are now located at the secure BSL-4 CDC laboratory in Atlanta, Georgia, where the rest of the US stockpile is located.
The last naturally-occurring Variola major case was in a Bangladeshi girl in 1975, and the last Variola minor case was in a hospital cook in Somalia, in 1977. Eradication was complete by early 1978, and was formally declared in 1980.
In late 1978, a medical photographer became infected by a smallpox sample kept at the University of Birmingham, and subsequently died from the disease. One other person also became infected, but survived. The researcher who was overseeing the photography operation was distraught and committed suicide soon after the photographer’s death. After this, the WHO strongly encouraged all countries to destroy their stockpiles of smallpox.
There was significant resistance to the recommendation and pressure by both Russia and the United States, and today there are two formally declared laboratories that have the live virus - the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, and VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia.
Having worked in several labs, there’s this fear of throwing things out that people might one day come back and need, or want to use again. Even samples that we can hardly identify, waaaaay back in the -80C freezers, get kept around unless we know what they are and who was using them and that they wish to destroy the sample or declare it unsuitable for future research. Stuff gets shoved to the back, and you don’t look at it for years or sometimes decades. There are some truly bizarre things to be found when cleaning old freezers…but hopefully I never come across something like this.
There are probably more smallpox samples out there, in former Soviet states, and in the US. Hopefully they’re all as well-sealed and safe as this one was.
The disease only spread from human to human, so there had been an unbroken chain of infection for more than three millennia. In the 1960s, before the eradication program, more than half a million people died every year from the disease.
“We take vaccines so for granted in the United States,” Gates explained during a news segment on the matter for HuffPost Live on Thursday. “Women in the developing world know the power of [vaccines]. They will walk 10 kilometers in the heat with their child and line up to get a vaccine because they have seen death.”
Hand-drawn and textured pages from a rare Japanese treatise on smallpox called The Essentials of Smallpox written in the late 17th or early 18th century by the Japanese doctor Kanda Gensen. Photograph: Wellcome Images
Hand-drawn and textured pages from a rare Japanese treatise on smallpox – The Essentials of Smallpox, written in the late 17th early 18th century by the Japanese doctor Kanda Gensen and edited and supplemented by Enokimoto Gensho.
North Brother Island- Unused until 1885, Riverside Hospital was moved to North Brother Island from Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island which you can read about here). Riverside Hospital was founded in the 1850’s and used to treat and isolate victims of Smallpox and eventually other quarantinable diseases. North Brother Island was chosen as it was a place able to be segregated from society. This is the island that Typhoid Mary was confined to for over 20 years until she died in 1938. Riverside Hospital closed shortly after this. After World War II the island was used as housing for war veterans and their families who were students at local colleges, but only for a short time as the island was then abandoned shortly after. After this, in the 1950’s a facility opened on the island to treat adolescent drug addicts. The center for treatment offered rehabilitation and education to young drug offenders. Heroin addicts were confined to the island and locked in their room until they were clean. Many of the offenders believed they were being held against their will. By the 1960’s staff corruption and patient recidivism forced the center to shut down. Again it was abandoned and left in solitude.
The First Vaccine — The Art of Chinese Viriolation
Smallpox was one of the worst diseases to ever afflict mankind, claiming hundreds of millions, if not billions of lives throughout all of history. Thus, it is no wonder that the first vaccines were developed to guard against smallpox. The first proto-vaccines were practiced in China in the 15th century, perhaps as early as the 10th century. The Chinese method was nothing like modern vaccination methods, but was an early form of viriolation (inoculation against smallpox), a method first coined by the English physician Edward Jenner. The early Chinese method of viriolation was to take the dried out scabs of smallpox victims. The scabs would then be ground into a powder, then blown through a pipe into the nostrils of the patient. There was a bit of ceremony behind the act; typically viriolation was done with a decorative silver pipe, and boys were viriolated through the right nostril while girls were viriolated through the left nostril.
While the Chinese at the time had no knowledge of germ theory and little knowledge of immunology, the purpose of this was to infect the patient with a mild form of smallpox. Indeed, the dried out scabs would contain weakened or dead smallpox virus, which the human immune system could easily fight off or at least obtain an immunological memory from its antigens. Viriolation became popular in China, especially among nobles and the upper class. One doctor named Zhang Yan boasted that he had successfully viriolated up to 9,000 people. In the 18th century a Japanese physician reported that around 80%-90% of China’s upper class families had their children viriolated.
The practice of Chinese viriolation was not without risks, as the virus could mutate and the patient become infected with full blown smallpox. However, the benefits far outweighed the risks in an age when smallpox decimated entire societies. Over time the Chinese would perfect their technique, finding easier and safer ways to infect patients. Their methods would spread across the Silk Road, being adopted in India, the Middles, and by the 18th century in Europe. It was then that Dr. Edward Jenner would experiment with various viriolation methods. It was in 1796 that he would develop the first modern vaccine by inoculating patients with cowpox, a disease similar to cowpox but much less deadly, and thus make them immune to smallpox. Today, the use of vaccines are a staple of modern society. The last case of smallpox occurred in 1977.
The Renwick Ruin on Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island, also known as the Smallpox Hospital, is located on the southern tip of the island, which was called Blackwell’s Island when the structure was built between 1854 and 1856.
The Gothic Revival structure was originally constructed for treatment of the “loathsome malady,” smallpox, and for many years it was New York City’s only such institution. The hospital was designed by famed architect James Renwick Jr., who was also responsible for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church.
It is now a picturesque ruin, one that could readily serve as the setting for a 19th-century “Gothic” romance. (Yahoo News/Landmarks Preservation Commission)