The Bizarre Way The Smallpox Vaccine Arrived In America

Published October 16, 2015
Published October 16, 2015

Early this month, three researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries on parasitic diseases. This December, the winners will receive their award at the official ceremony in Stockholm, where they will join the pantheon of scientific investigators whose discoveries changed countless lives for the better.

In the meantime, one historical medical milestone has a backstory worth knowing about: how the smallpox vaccine arrived in America.

An infectious disease just like those studied by the latest Nobel winners, smallpox was known in the 18th century as “the minister of death,” leaving countless casualties in its wake. It caused fever, aching, scabs filled with pus, and in many cases death. In fact, estimates suggest that in late 18th century Europe, just under half a million died each year due to the then-cureless illness.

Smallpox Vaccine Jenner

Portrait of Edward Jenner, the discoverer of the smallpox vaccine
Image Source: Flickr

Enter Edward Jenner. The year was 1796, and after hearing for years that some dairymaids were immune from smallpox after having contracted cowpox, the British doctor decided to investigate the matter for himself. After successfully inoculating a little boy with pus from a dairymaid’s cowpox lesion, Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccine. This was the beginning of a medical breakthrough.

Jenner’s innovation came at the right time. Spanish colonies in the so-called New World were being ravaged by the disease, which killed colonists in droves. When news of this epidemic hit the Spanish empire — made that much more personal when the King Charles IV’s own daughter contracted the virus — one of history’s most out of the ordinary immunization campaigns began.

Smallpox Vaccine Jenner Painting

Image Source: Wikimedia

In those days, the vaccine could only be transferred live since it wasn’t stored in vials and refrigerated. In other words, in order to administer the smallpox vaccine to a colonist, a living vaccine carrier had to be around. The Spanish crown faced a problem: how could the vaccine make its way across the ocean — and at minimal cost?

Teresa Cantero
Teresa is a freelance journalist and former Fulbright scholar now based in Spain. She has an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University and a Bachelors in Journalism from the Universidad de Navarra.