27 Photos That Illustrate The Devastating History Of Smallpox

Published November 17, 2022

For thousands of years, smallpox ravaged populations around the world, killing 30 percent of those it infected — until Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine in 1796 that eventually helped lead to the disease's eradication in the 1970s.

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27 Photos That Illustrate The Devastating History Of Smallpox
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Throughout human history, few things could incite more terror than smallpox. The devastating disease, which spread indiscriminately across the globe, killed a full thirty percent of the people it infected and left many survivors blind or disfigured.

For thousands of years, it seemed that smallpox would be around forever. But the disease was stopped in its tracks in the 20th century thanks to an acute observation 200 years earlier by an English doctor named Edward Jenner. His theories about vaccinations were eventually accepted by society, leading to the eradication of the disease worldwide by 1977.

In the gallery above, discover the history of smallpox and the smallpox vaccination in 27 harrowing images. And below, read about the history of the disease and its 20th-century eradication.

The Early History Of Smallpox

Antonine Plague

Wellcome CollectionAn "angel of death" depicted knocking on a door in Rome. The devastating second century Antonine Plague, which killed up to seven million and led to the fall of the Roman Empire, is commonly believed to have been caused by smallpox.

Though smallpox has been documented throughout human history, no one is sure exactly where it originated. According to HISTORY, it may have emerged some 12,000 years ago as humans developed agricultural settlements.

The first evidence of smallpox, however, came much later. As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports, smallpox rashes have been found on Egyptian mummies who died 3,000 years ago. And the earliest known written descriptions of the disease appeared in China during the 4th century C.E.

From there, the disease's path is a bit easier to trace. The CDC reports that increasing trade between cultures brought smallpox from Asia to Africa and from Africa to Europe. European settlers and enslaved Africans then brought smallpox to South America and the Caribbean and, later, to North America.

Along the way, smallpox wreaked death and destruction. HISTORY notes that the disease may have been responsible for the Antonine Plague of 165 to 180 C.E., which killed an estimated 3.5 million to 7 million people and helped bring about the fall of the Roman Empire. And smallpox and other illnesses wiped out a shocking 90 percent of indigenous people in North and South America when European settlers carrying the diseases arrived.

But in 1796, an English doctor made a fateful observation about milkmaids that would lead to the eradication of smallpox within two centuries.

How Vaccination Eradicated Smallpox Worldwide

Humankind wasn't entirely defenseless when it came to fighting smallpox. As a paper published in the National Library of Medicine explains, societies in Asia and Africa had come up with a process called variolation, or inoculation, which involved inserting the pus from someone with smallpox into the skin or nose of a healthy person.

But the process came with risks. Some two to three percent of people died from the procedure, which could also spark new epidemics or spread unrelated diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis. Still, it was the best defense humans had against smallpox — until Edward Jenner came along.

Edward Jenner Smallpox

Bettmann/Getty ImagesA depiction of Edward Jenner vaccinating a child from smallpox using material from cowpox.

An 18th-century English doctor, Jenner noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox seemed curiously immune to smallpox. In 1796, he scraped a lesion of cowpox from a milkmaid's hand and inoculated an eight-year-old boy, then later inoculated him again with pus from smallpox. The boy didn't get sick, proving that the cowpox inoculation had protected him.

Though Jenner's ideas weren't initially taken seriously, his vaccination technique proved to be much safer than variolation. And not only did it help wipe out smallpox completely — the CDC reports that the last naturally-occurring case of the disease happened in Somalia in 1977 — but it also led to vaccinations for other diseases like polio and measles.

Before that point, though, the disease rightfully terrified people around the world. In the gallery above, look through 27 disturbing photos that illustrate the history of smallpox, from its murky beginnings to its horrifying symptoms — and finally to its 20th-century eradication.

After looking through these devastating images of smallpox through the ages, delve into the shocking history of the polio epidemic. Or, learn about some of the most fascinating diseases that have ravaged humanity.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "27 Photos That Illustrate The Devastating History Of Smallpox." AllThatsInteresting.com, November 17, 2022, https://allthatsinteresting.com/smallpox-pictures. Accessed June 19, 2024.