The history of smallpox is very important because it is used kind of like a one-word refutation by those who push vaccines, and we’ve been told how horrible it was without that many details and the narrative of the vaccine wiping it out is accepted without question. But is that the whole story? What do the history books say? What does the medical literature from the 1800s say?
To talk of smallpox, one must begin with the devastating conditions in which people lived at that time. Smallpox is a filth disease, like typhoid and cholera and tetanus. Some have vectors, some don’t. But one must take into account the living conditions of that time. All disease was much more dangerous and terrifying during a time when people lived in abject filth. I don’t want to minimize it. It was painful, disfiguring, and deadly to a certain amount of people, but it’s interesting to find that scarlet fever killed many more per 100,000 than smallpox did:
Let’s explore the living conditions in the 1800s when smallpox was at its peak.
Starving babies (I can’t post the pictures because it causes me physical distress) were common, the living conditions were appalling. Jane Austen movies focus on a very small subset of the population back then. Charles Dickens gives a much more accurate depiction of how things were (especially in cities, although country folk had their own set of troubles), and the rampant use of child labor made them so malnourished, overworked, and devoid of sunlight, or fresh air, or a childhood, that it’s almost a miracle the human race survived such an era.
I don’t think we can fully imagine how bad it was for a large amount of people back then. But getting an accurate picture is important because any disease (even measles) killed thousands of children throughout these years. Diarrhea (from all its causes) was the biggest killer of all. There was no way to keep children hydrated before IVs were invented, thus many died from stomach bugs that are so easily treated today.
“For example, the report of a health officer for Darlington in the 1850s found six children, aged between 2 and 17, suffering from smallpox in a one-roomed dwelling shared with their parents, and elder brother and an uncle. They all slept together on rags on the floor, with no bed. Millions of similar cases could be cited, with conditions getting even worse as disease victims died and their corpses remained rotting among families in single-roomed accommodations for days, as the family scraped together the pennies to bury them.” 
With the enactment of child labor laws, the advent of indoor plumbing, and strict laws on the preparation/selling of food, disease rates (all disease rates) dropped exponentially (see graph above). The 1940s is where you see most disease completely wiped out (or at least losing their ability to kill), and incidentally, 1948 is when the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was passed and a uniform requirement was enacted for us to have clean drinking water. There had been improvements before this, but not until that year was it passed as law.
Coincidentally, smallpox completely disappeared from the United States by 1949, and worldwide by 1980. Most people today believe that the infectious menace was vanquished by the power of a vaccine. So let’s dive into the dirty details of the vaccine (pun intended).
There were many attempts at a smallpox vaccine, all the way back to 500 AD, but the first we see of it in England, was in 1717 with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who returned from the Ottoman Empire with knowledge of a practice called variolation which entailed taking a small amount of material from a human smallpox lesion and scratching it into the skin of another person. If all went well, the recipient would suffer a mild attack of smallpox and then would become immune to the disease. (Dissolving Illusions)
Two problems with variolation were that it could result in death and the procedure actually spread disease into surrounding communities. The practice of exposing people to contracting this disease on purpose came and went in popularity throughout the early 1700s. In 1764 it was made clear that the unintended result of inoculation was an increased death rate from smallpox: “…the practice of inoculation manifestly tends to spread the contagion for a contagious disease is produced by Inoculation where it would not otherwise have been produced; the place where it is thus produced becomes a center of contagion, whence it spreads, not less fatally or widely than it would spread from a center where the disease should happen in a natural way; these centers of contagion are manifestly multiplied very greatly by Inoculation…” 
This was before quarantine was discovered, so infecting people actually led to more outbreaks of this disease and increased the spread. This is still a risk with live vaccines today.
A farmer named Benjamin Jesty was the first to make scratches on his wife and two sons using a darning needle, then rubbing material from the pock of an infected cow into them. This happened in 1774. Allegedly, when Jesty’s sons were later deliberately exposed to smallpox, they did not come down with the disease.
In 1796, believing these stories, Edward Jenner (having bought his medical degree from St Andrew’s University for 15 pounds 6 years prior) subjected an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps to an experiment. He took disease matter that he believed to be cowpox from lesions on the hands of dairymaid Sarah Nelmes and vaccinated James with it. The child was later deliberately exposed to smallpox in order to test the protective property of the cowpox inoculation. When the boy did not contract clinical smallpox, it was assumed the cowpox vaccination was successful and that it would also provide lifelong protection against smallpox.
So many questions went unasked. Immunology was so crude that knowledge of preexisting immunity or subclinical infection was not part of Jenner’s experimental design. Even though his claims were based on a sample of one and no scientific method whatsoever, it fueled the belief that once a person was exposed to cowpox, lifelong protection from smallpox was possible, and he was subsequently granted money to further his research in 1801.
There was varying belief in the success of this practice among doctors and scientists of the time, many of whom disagreed with Jenner, or said that this type of inoculation could only produce a short period of immunity from smallpox. Some said 3 years, others believed 10, one doctor said people should be revaccinated annually.
He was challenged after his paper was published in 1798 by many doctors who had seen smallpox follow cowpox, and some even outright laughed at his theories: “But Jenner no sooner mentioned it than they laughed at it. The cow doctors could have told him of hundreds of cases where smallpox had followed cowpox.” 
In 1799, Dr Drake, tried to replicate Jenner’s experiment using a vaccine obtained directly from Jenner on 3 children. The children were then challenged with a smallpox inoculation to see if the cowpox procedure had been effective: “They all developed smallpox, both the local pustules and the general eruption with fever.” 
Dr Creighton was highly critical of this practice and pointed out that because of the anecdotal nature of Jenner’s experiments, he could arrive at whatever conclusion fit his predetermined outcome. “The only real experiment in the paper on cowpox, as originally offered to the Royal Society, was the inoculation of James Phipps; the results of it, as we have seen, were recorded with a brevity which enabled Jenner to suppress the true and suggest the false. It is absurd to claim the dozen old cases of cowpoxed milkers, who were subsequently incoculated with smallpox, as experiments; there were many cowpoxed milkers…who submitted to inoculation along with others, whenever a general inoculation was afoot; and Jenner’s cases were only a few, favourable to his contention…he himself stands for the man who “peremptorily decides on the truth or falsehood of a theory, on the supposed authority of a few solitary instances.” 
Even now, the CDC admits the scientific method of proving the vaccine works, has never been applied: “Since the late 1700s, the medical profession has supported vaccination, even though there was never a trial where one group was vaccinated and compared to another group of the same size that was not vaccinated.”  They don’t even know the level of antibody that protects against smallpox. [same source as 6]
There is much confusion over the origin of the virus termed vaccinia. Jenner used cowpox, and later smallpox itself, but he also believed that genuine cowpox disease originated from a condition in horses called the grease. Some practitioners used vaccine lymph from other animals, such as goats. After years of mixing different animal viruses and passing them through humans and back into cows again, an 1834 article cast doubt on how much vaccine virus even came from cows. 
The standardization and purity of smallpox vaccines was lackluster even after the eradication of smallpox from the United States. Dr Beddow Bayly’s 1952 statements should leave everyone wondering how such a vaccine could have possibly been responsible for the eradication of any disease: “When we recall that vaccine lymph is derived in the first place, either from a smallpox corpse, the ulcerated udder of a cow, or the running sores of a sick horse’s heels, the choice depending upon the country of its origin and the firm which manufactures it, it is hardly to be wondered at that it has far-reaching effects on the human constitution. No practitioner knows whether the lymph he employs is derived from smallpox, rabbit-pox, ass-pox, or mule-pox. Our own Ministry of Health has long confessed to complete ignorance of the ultimate source of its own supply of lymph; but last year Dr A. Downie stated in the British Medical Journal that “the strain of vaccinia virus used for the routine preparation of lymph in this country is believed to have been dervied from a case of smallpox in Cologne during the last century.” That, of course, disposes of the whole theory of cowpox vaccination.” 
So which was it? Are we to believe that the pus from cowpox, horse grease, rabbit/mule/ass pox were all responsible for the decrease in smallpox over the years? Or is it more probable that these doctors were just bumbling about, doing their best to inoculate against something they did not understand, and probably harming more people than they helped?
Even modern vaccines do not actually contain cowpox or smallpox virus but a human/animal hybrid agent that never existed in nature until the era of vaccination. Some of the animals that have been used to passage today’s vaccine viruse include rabbits, mice, goats, cows, horses, sheep, and humans. 
To say that there is and always has been a great deal of confusion as to what viruses were in smallpox vaccines is a gross understatement.
Throughout this time, the process of vaccination slowly moved from using diseased pox of animals, to a human-to-human model. This procedure then consisted of rubbing pox pustular lymph from the pock of an inoculated human to a cut in the arm of the next human recipient and was termed “arm to arm vaccination”. Often, multiple sites were used in an attempt to try and ensure maximum protection. Successful vaccination was thought to have occurred by a “good take” after wounding up to five parts of the arm in one sitting.
Obviously, this method came with risks. Nothing was sterile, the living conditions were awful, it’s a wonder people survived this practice at all. Many infants contracted sepsis or gangrene from this and died as a result.
Some continued to embrace Jenner’s vaccine despite many accounts that refuted its benefits, all describing numerous cases that had natural cowpox or were vaccinated and still died of smallpox, along with many doctors in the medical community reporting problems with the practice itself despite being financially incentivized to vaccinate. Here are just two examples:
“The Medical Observer for 1810 contains particulars of 535 cases of smallpox after vaccination, 97 fatal cases, 150 of vaccine injuries…” 
“The accounts from all quarters of the world, wherever vaccination has been introuced…the cases of failures are now increased to an alarming proportion; and from a fair and impartial examination appears, where the smallpox contagion has access to operate upon vaccinated cases of upwards of six years standing…nearly the whole of such cases will yield to the influence of the smallpox contagion.” 
Time went on, vaccination continued in all its forms and sources, public confidence decreased while doubts and complaints increased. By 1840, vaccine refusal had increased to the point that government was forced to make it compulsory in England. 1853 marked the first law forcing people to be vaccinated with stricter laws passed in 1867.
Isn’t it interesting in and of itself that this had to be forced on people? That what we now see as the scourge of the earth was something people actually preferred to risk over the practice of vaccination? Aren’t we taught to think that people were so desperate to escape the horror that was smallpox that they were lining up in the streets for the salvation contained in a syringe? I found it so shocking that the first antivaccination leagues were formed around this time, and that there were people willing to pay exorbitant fines and even go to jail rather than have their children vaccinated. How bad must it have been for people to make these choices? They even protested it publicly:
In fact, more people died from smallpox in the 20 years after the strict compulsory laws than in the 20 years prior. 
The deaths related to vaccination totaled more than 1,600 in England from 1859-1922. From 1906 to 1922, the number of deaths recorded from vaccination and from smallpox were very close to the same:
Examples of deaths from “cowpox and other effects of vaccination” were common and often resulted from a very serious, often fatal bacterial phage-mediated toxin disease called erysipelas.  (with a death rate higher than smallpox itself)
In 1948, when we only had one death from smallpox itself, 200-300 deaths were estimated being caused by the vaccine. Because of poor surveillance and vaccine reaction under-reporting, the authors of a 1970 study suspected that the number of smallpox vaccine-related deaths was higher than the reports reflected. This study only examined deaths from 1959 to 1968 in the United States. If the deaths were this high in a country with a modern health-care system, what was the total number of deaths from smallpox vaccination from 1800 to the present across the entire world? 
By 1909, vaccination coverage rates for the smallpox vaccine dropped to 40%. Despite declining vaccination rates, smallpox deaths remained low, vanishing to near zero after 1906:
After the 1872 pandemic (when vaccination rates were as high as 90%), people lost complete confidence in the vaccine and started turning to sanitation, hygiene, improved housing, nutrition, and isolation of cases, and turning away from the vaccine. These ideas, which clashed with the medical profession and governmental laws, culminated in a large demonstration in 1885 against compulsory vaccination in the small manufacturing town of Leicester, England. People had had enough. This is where the tide turned, and I will cover this in my next post.
But even without the miraculous story of Leicester, can one truly take a close look at history and make the claim that the smallpox vaccine saved us from smallpox? And if so, which one? Was it the cowpox version? Or one of the other versions? And even if you believe that they all somehow worked, catching a glimpse of the opposition to this practice from the time when this disease was killing people is enlightening. One must also admit that the vaccine killed people. It’s a scientific fact, admitted in the literature. And as such, a choice should always be allowed. Forcing someone to choose a vaccine that might kill them over a disease they might never be exposed to and could possibly survive, is a practice that was fought against and won. I believe it’s the only reason we aren’t all still vaccinated for this infection. The public outcry was such that they had to admit it was harming people and causing more damage than it was worth. So now, only our military is vaccinated for this. Despite no cases in the entire world for 40 years (after all, we’re still vaccinating for polio, and that’s been gone from the US for 41 years), we’re still subjecting our military to a dangerous vaccine that comes with zero scientifically proven benefit and whose contents aren’t even proven to protect against smallpox if they were exposed.
- Dorothy Porter, Health, Civilization, and the State–A History of Public Health from Ancient to Modern Times, Routledge, Oxfordshire, England, 1999, p. 113.
- “The Practice of Inoculation Truly Stated,” The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, vol. 34, 1764, p. 333.
- https://archive.org/details/JennerAndVaccinationCharlesCreighton/page/n4/mode/2up (pages 95-96)
- https://archive.org/details/JennerAndVaccinationCharlesCreighton/page/n4/mode/2up (page 59)
- Dr. Fiard, “Experiments upon the Communication and Origin of Vaccine Virus,” London Medical and Surgical Journal, vol. 4, 1834, p. 796.
- M. Beddow Bayly, MRCS, LRCP, “Inoculation Dangers to Travelers,” October 2, 1952. Published by the London and Provincial Society.
- https://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/zAnon1889JanWestRev.pdf (page 101)
- Thomas Brown, Surgeon Musselburgh, “On the Present State of Vaccination,” The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, vol 15, 1819, p. 67.
- “Small-pox and Revaccination,” Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, vol. CIV, no. 6, February 10, 1881, p. 137.