27 Photos That Illustrate The Devastating History Of Smallpox
By Kaleena Fraga | Edited By Cara Johnson
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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The mummy of Pharaoh Ramses V, who died in 1145 B.C.E. He is one of the earliest known victims of smallpox.Public Domain
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European settlers in the Americas brought smallpox with them. It and other diseases devastated indigenous people, wiping out an estimated 90 percent of the population.
When Chief Pontiac, depicted here in the red shawl, besieged Fort Pitt in present-day Pittsburgh in 1763, some of the fort's commanders reportedly even handed out blankets infected with smallpox in hopes of spreading the disease to his troops.MPI/Getty Images
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Squanto, who acted as an interpreter to early Pilgrim settlers, lost his entire tribe to a disease that could have been smallpox, yellow fever, bubonic plague, or influenza. Getty Images
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A depiction of Edward Jenner performing his first vaccination in 1796. By using cowpox samples instead of smallpox pus, Jenner made protecting people against the disease much safer. His vaccination technique also led to a number of other vaccinations for different diseases, like polio.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A depiction showing the vaccination of "tramps" against smallpox in New York City in 1879.Bettmann/Getty Images
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An illustration showing smallpox pustules, from an 1884 volume authored by Edward Jenner and others.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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The ward deck of the British Atlas Smallpox Hospital Ship, circa 1890-1899.
Though England enforced mandatory vaccinations starting in 1853, the country still suffered from occasional outbreaks. An outbreak in 1881 led to the use of ships to ease the pressure on overcrowded hospitals.
City of London: London Metropolitan Archives/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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Two young Ho-Chunk girls with smallpox outside their lodge in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, 1900. Charles Van Schaick/Wisconsin Historical Society/Getty Images
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An unvaccinated child with smallpox. 1915.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A poster instructing Muslims to get inoculated against smallpox, with a warning that failing to do so could lead to blindness. 1920.Communist Party/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
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An aboriginal man getting vaccinated in New Britain, Australia. 1923.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A doctor travels by dogsled to provide care during a smallpox outbreak in Alaska in 1929.
According to the original caption, Dr. L. E. Bensom was on vacation from California when he heard about the outbreak, and he traveled by dogsled to an indigenous village to help. There, 70 of the 100 residents had smallpox, but just one died under Bensom's care.Bettmann/Getty Images
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The crew of the Comorin helped rescue members of the George Philippar, but the ship soon suffered a smallpox outbreak on board. Here, crew members are seen stopping journalists and others from boarding the ship once it docked in Marseille, France. 1932.Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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Children are vaccinated in New York following an outbreak at a roadside stand. 1939.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Men line up to get vaccinated against smallpox in Paris, France. 1942.Roger Viollet via Getty Images
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A six-year-old Chinese boy in Yangchow, China, suffering from smallpox in 1946.
According to the original caption, he and his family walked hundreds of miles to escape the Communist zone and contracted the disease from other refugee children.Bettmann/Getty Images
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Circus performers set to perform at Madison Square Garden, including a "Tattoo Lady" named Betty Broadband, are vaccinated against smallpox in New York City. 1947. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A group of French models line up for their smallpox vaccinations. 1955.FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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A woman gets vaccinated during a raging smallpox epidemic in Pakistan in 1961.
The purdah law — which requires the segregation of men and women and for women to cover their skin — was lifted in order to prevent the spread of smallpox. Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
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A young smallpox victim in Leopoldville in the Congo. 1962.Bettmann/Getty Images
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A Global Smallpox Eradication worker vaccinates a group of local residents in Cotonou, Benin. 1968.
The Global Smallpox Eradication Program began in 1967. By then, smallpox had been eliminated in North America and Europe, and the program succeeded in eradicating smallpox in South America (1971), Asia (1975), and Africa (1977).CDC/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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A lab worker collects smallpox scabs from a young boy for laboratory analysis. Date and location unknown. Bettmann/Getty Images
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A young boy in Bhaktapur, Népal, who was blinded by smallpox. Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
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An Ethiopian boy with smallpox.Paul Almasy/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
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A patient with smallpox during the Kosovo, Yugoslavia epidemic in March and April 1972.
Though Europe had officially eradicated the disease, religious pilgrims who'd visited the Middle East carried the disease to Kosovo. CDC/Dr. William Foege/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
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Catherine-de-Barnes Isolation Hospital in England was on "standby" in the 1970s and 1980s for any smallpox outbreaks. Here, hospital caretaker Leslie Harris tests the fumigation equipment in 1983.
Once smallpox was declared eradicated, the hospital was fumigated and converted into new housing.
Robert May/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
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A man suffering from telltale smallpox pustules.CDC/NIP/Barbara Rice/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
27 Photos That Illustrate The Devastating History Of Smallpox
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
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.
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.
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.
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.