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.
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.