This arti­cle is part 4 of 7 in the series Other Bad Bugs We Have Known

Smallpox was bad; real­ly, real­ly bad. It was one of the most dead­ly dis­eases known to man. Throughout his­to­ry, it killed many, many hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple. In the 1900s alone, it killed over 300 mil­lion peo­ple worldwide.

The good news is that a vac­cine was devel­oped and enough peo­ple had the com­mon sense to get it that small­pox is now com­plete­ly elim­i­nat­ed from the face of the earth. The world was offi­cial­ly declared free of this ter­ri­ble dis­ease in May of 1980. This achieve­ment is often con­sid­ered the biggest vic­to­ry of inter­na­tion­al pub­lic health.

Let’s review: (1) Smallpox was a major killer for thou­sands of years. (2) A vac­cine was devel­oped. (3) People took the vac­cine either by choice or by gov­ern­ment man­date. (4) Smallpox was com­plete­ly defeat­ed. (5) We don’t have to wor­ry about it anymore.

In today’s Covid pan­dem­ic, we seem to have for­got­ten that sim­ple for­mu­la. And hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent peo­ple have died unnecessarily.

With a case of small­pox, the body becomes cov­ered with lit­tle vol­ca­noes erupt­ing with­­­­—no, let’s stop the descrip­tion. Trust me, it’s bad. Let’s just say you could be in a zom­bie movie and not need make­up. Even if you sur­vived, you would have scars. Sometimes not so bad, some­times very bad. You might lose an ear, or your lips, or your nose. You might be blind.

Medical scientist at work
Medical sci­en­tist at work. Photo by CDC.

By the 1600s, doc­tors in Asia took the dried scabs of the pox and blew it up people’s noses. This caused a milder case of small­pox and pro­vid­ed immu­ni­ty from get­ting it again. About 2% died, which was pret­ty good com­pared to the 30% who died otherwise.

In Colonial America, we took a dif­fer­ent approach. Let’s start with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. We all remem­ber how a few young girls start­ed hav­ing uncon­trol­lable fits. The strict­ly reli­gious Puritan com­mu­ni­ty decid­ed the rea­son was obvi­ous­ly witch­craft. Mass hys­te­ria quick­ly con­sumed the vil­lage. Soon, every­one was accus­ing any­one they didn’t like of being a witch. Two hun­dred peo­ple were accused, thir­ty were found guilty, nine­teen were hanged, and five died in jail.

Every false accu­sa­tion, every tri­al, every hang­ing was fur­ther proof that witch­craft was real.

Puritans believed every­one was equal in the eyes of God but not in the eyes of the Devil. They believed women had a nat­ur­al moral weak­ness and were far eas­i­er for the Devil to cor­rupt. 75% of the accused were women.

A preach­er from Boston named Cotton Mather was the lead­ing Puritan min­is­ter of that time. He was a firm believ­er in witch­craft and added his voice of author­i­ty to the Salem mad­ness. Some his­to­ri­ans main­tain that he only mod­er­at­ed his view after his wife was accused of being a witch.

Be that as it may. In our essay, Cotton Mather plays a part because of an enslaved man his con­gre­ga­tion had bought for him. Mather didn’t like the enslaved man. Somehow, the man got enough mon­ey to buy his free­dom. Mather used the mon­ey to buy him­self anoth­er, less trou­ble­some servant.

But the first man had told Mather that he knew how to cure small­pox. All you had to do was to take the pus from an infect­ed per­son and put it into a small cut in your arm. You got a mild case but nev­er a full case of smallpox.

Mather ver­i­fied the sto­ry with oth­er enslaved peo­ple. He became a con­vert and spread the word. It was not well received. How could he pos­si­bly pro­pose doing some­thing sug­gest­ed by a black per­son? Someone threw a bomb into his house.

There was one doc­tor in Boston who believed in the tech­nique. When a small­pox epi­dem­ic swept into Boston, sick­en­ing half the town, the doc­tor start­ed inoc­u­lat­ing peo­ple. Only one in forty peo­ple died com­pared to one in sev­en of the anti-vaxxers.

This set the stage for the next advance­ment. About sev­en­ty years lat­er, an English doc­tor named Edward Jenner noticed that milk­maids who devel­oped cow­pox were immune to small­pox. Jenner took the pus from the sores of a per­son with cow­pox and inoc­u­lat­ed it into the arms of healthy peo­ple. It worked.

An argu­ment can be made that cow­pox inoc­u­la­tion was a major fac­tor in how we defeat­ed the British in the Revolutionary war. We all learned about that dread­ful win­ter at Valley Forge when General George Washington’s cold, sick, hun­gry, and demor­al­ized troops suf­fered so ter­ri­bly.  And Washington had anoth­er fear. There was a small­pox out­break in the area. If it struck his camp, the war was lost.

He made the deci­sion to inoc­u­late his troops with cow­pox. It worked. His men did not get smallpox.

The rest, as they say, is his­to­ry. Our his­to­ry. Had Washington not vac­ci­nat­ed his troops, we could very well be British history.

Around 1900 a major small­pox out­break occurred in the U.S. A nation­wide vac­ci­na­tion effort began. In some cities and states, vac­ci­na­tion was manda­to­ry. Certificates of vac­ci­na­tion were required. Groups of anti-vaxxers emerged who forged the cer­tifi­cates. (As they do today with our Covid pan­dem­ic.) They said manda­to­ry vac­ci­na­tions vio­lat­ed their civ­il rights. They believed they should be free to do what­ev­er they want­ed regard­less of the fact that their reck­less action spread the dis­ease and result­ed in the unnec­es­sary deaths of tens of thousands.

The vac­ci­na­tion process left a scar on the upper arm. With so many fake cer­tifi­cates, the scar became the pass­port into civic life. Businesses began to require their employ­ees to show a scar. A major steel com­pa­ny required all employ­ees and their fam­i­lies, approx­i­mate­ly 300,000 peo­ple, to show a scar. Businesses had the com­mon sense to know that a pan­dem­ic is bad for business.

Our smartest sci­en­tists and med­ical author­i­ties have devel­oped a vac­cine for Covid-19 that is safe and high­ly effec­tive. No vac­cine works 100% of the time, but ours are very good. And much bet­ter than the vac­cines com­ing out of China or Russia. None of the 100 or so “cures” from around the world that cir­cu­late on the inter­net will work. None of the “cures” offered by tel­e­van­ge­lists, ex-pres­i­dents, sports fig­ures, movie stars, or any­one try­ing to sell you some­thing will work.

And the idea that there is a microchip in the vac­cine? Oh, for Heaven’s sake. That’s crazy talk. Or tak­ing a med­i­cine that kills worms in sheep? How dumb is that? (Unless, of course, you’re a sheep.)

Use your com­mon­sense. Get vaccinated.

  • David made scaled-down, tra­di­tion­al Appalachian musi­cal instru­ments for chil­dren. Thousands of ele­men­tary stu­dents from across the state enjoyed his hands-on Appalachian music and her­itage pro­gram. He also worked with folks from six coun­ties for the cre­ation of the Appalachian Heritage Monument—a world-class venue that would rebrand Eastern Kentucky in a pos­i­tive light. (Still work­ing on it.) David lives in Valeria, Wolfe County, Kentucky.

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