Richmond Story: Smallpox Vaccine
Today, all Virginians 16 and older will be eligible to receive a COVID vaccine! Are you hesitant, skeptical or afraid? Maybe a little vaccine history will put your mind at ease.
The world’s first vaccine was developed to combat smallpox. Highly contagious and one of the deadliest diseases in human history, it killed three out of every ten of its victims. And it was widespread. Smallpox affected all classes—royalty, soldiers, enslaved people—but was particularly devastating to Indigenous people. In Virginia, smallpox was introduced by Jamestown settlers, and by 1700, the disease had already killed 75% of the Indigenous population, nearly wiping out the once powerful Powhatan Nation.
Regular smallpox outbreaks swept through Richmond from the 18th to the first part of the 20th century. Before 1796, doctors used a crude precursor to inoculation, called variolation, to try to control the spread. With variolation in the United States and Europe, a scab from someone infected with smallpox would be inserted under the skin of a healthy individual. During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington made sure his soldiers were treated with variolation. The procedure, in addition to being disgusting, could backfire. Variolation could lead to a deadly case. But soldiers so feared smallpox that if no medical supervision was available, it was not unheard of to simply lance a scab from an infected comrade and self-variolate.
This was the state of things before 1796, when an English scientist named Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox seemed immune from smallpox. From there, he developed an effective smallpox vaccine from the slightly less disgusting, much less deadly sores of infected cows.
By 1800, Henrico County granted the first license for a smallpox inoculation clinic, at the estate of John Tabb near Richmond. During the 19th century, Richmond offered free vaccinations for its citizens. Doctors would receive dried cow scabs, along with instructions on how to administer them. This 1861 instruction sheet from Virginia’s vaccine agent, Dr. A.E. Peticolas, shows that the early vaccine was not administered by needle, but by rubbing the powdered scabs into a section of skin scratched raw by the doctor. Ouch!
Despite the pain and the ick factor, the vaccine was widely administered. After years of vigorous public health campaigns, smallpox was eliminated from the U.S. in 1949. It was eradicated from the world by 1980. It is the only disease to have been completely eliminated through vaccination, though hopefully not the last.
With modern advances, it is easier than ever to distribute vaccines quickly and on a mass scale. The more people who receive the COVID vaccine, the more chance we have to one day eradicate this new disease. And in 2021, we don’t have to deal with scabs as part of the inoculation process.
A sterile needle and some mRNA doesn’t seem so daunting now, does it?