Smallpox was an infective disease caused by two virus variants that is Variola major and Variola minor. The term comes from the late Latin “variŏla”, coming from “varius” which means “stained”.

Below: picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The appearance of this virus dates to the 10th millennium BC with high death rates in the following centuries, up until the mandatory vaccination started in the 60’s.

The smallpox vaccine was discovered by Edward Jenner in 1798. Jenner was born and raised in the English Berkeley, son of the Reverend Stephen Jenner vicar of the city. Since a very young age, Edward was trained with a classical education for which Latin became part of his daily spoken languages. By the time he was 13, he became an apprentice of the chemist Daniel Ludlow and later of the surgeon George Hardwick in the nearby Sodbury.

Below: Edward Jenner. Image from the Wellcome Collection Gallery shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Throughout his research he observed that the people infected with the Bovine Variola during their duty with the cattle seemed immune to the Variola virus. These observations were not tested though and so they did not lead to any diagnosis.

From the 1770 to the 1772, Jenner received a medical education in London at the St. Georges Hospital, as a private student of John Hunter, then, once he terminated his studies, he came back to his Berkeley to start working.

When in Berkeley an epidemic of smallpox occurred, doctor Jenner suggested to all his patients to get to his studio to have a check, but many said that the previous infections coming from the bovine Variola that they had contracted would have protected them. This confirmed the suspects that the man had noticed in the past, so he started studying the Bovine version of it, and wrote down a report on the topic for the local medical society.

“An inquiry into the causes and effects of the Variolae vaccinae”, report of the study of Variole. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

From the observation of certain iconographic sources and the traditional history of the place, it is possible to hypothesize that the correlation between resistance to the condition and the work with the cattle stood out. The “Pretty Milkmaid” was a fashionable theme in this period of healthy and natural lifestyle, representing the immunity to the Variola virus for those working the fields. In the years following the 1770, at least 6 researchers both in England and Germany tested with success the possibility to utilise the Bovine Variola as a form of vaccination on to the human beings.

In 1796 Sarah Nelmes, local milkmaid, contracted the virus and went looking for Jenner hoping for a cure. The doctor made use of the situation to test his theory: he injected to the gardener’s son James Phipps the infected material, extracted by the Bovine Variola that had contaminated Sarah.

Below: Jenner portrayed while he vaccinates the child with the virus. Picture shared by Wellcome Collection Gallery via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

After an initial rise in temperature and local lesion, as expected, the child recovered in a couple of days. Around 2 months later, Jenner vaccinated James on both arms with the infected material of another case of human Variola, without noticing any effect whatsoever.

the little boy was immune to the human virus

In April 1797, the doctor sent an article where describing his observations to the Royal Society. The document was analysed by the president Sir Joseph Banks, who turned to Everard Home, luminary of anatomy and surgery to have another opinion. A campaign of study and experimentation started off, where Jenner observed 23 different cases, some of which of people who had resisted the natural exposition since they had been vaccinated; he published a report of the whole research in 1798.

Below: handwritten report sent to the Royal Society. picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

It is not clear how many people were vaccinated in total by the doctor. Either way, Jenner concluded by stating that the injection of the Bovine Variola was a safe alternative to the human contraction of the infection. Rashly though, the doctor affirmed that the vaccine would have had a lifetime effect, fact which eventually resulted as faxe. Furthermore it is noteworthy to mention that the term “vaccine” was introduced by Jenner himself: the term came from “variolae vaccinae”, as in the Variola coming from “vaccinae”, which means cow.

The term “vaccination” soon replaced the terminology of “inoculation of variolae vaccinae” and it was used for the first time in a documentation, given to the Press in 1800 by a friend of Jenner, Richard Dunning.

Initially, the term vaccinae/ vaccination was specifically used only for the Variola infection but in 1881 Louis Pasteur, founder of microbiology, suggested to honour Jenner’s discovery utilising the term for the new and future vaccinations.

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The Variola during the years was cause of hundreds of millions of victims. Each death was tragic, but the last person to die because of it endured a tragic ending. This infection was one of the most threatened killers all over, the people who contracted it and did not die became blind or ill for the rest of their lives.

in 1959 the WHO, World Health Organisation, announced that they would have started a world battle to eradicate the threat of Variola which would have lasted 10 years

The last case of Variola was thought to be the one from the October 1977, Africa. A 23 years old cook named Ali Maow Maalin, working in a hospital and that was not vaccinated,  contracted the infection yet he miraculously recovered. A medical team tracked down the responsible people of the epidemics carrying out further vaccinations, more than 50,000, which made experts declare that the disease was completely eradicated in 1979.

then, Variola unexpectedly showed up one more time

Janet Parker was a medical photographer born in 1938, working at the Medicine University of  Birmingham in the department of Anatomy. On the lower floor there was Microbiology, directed by Professor Henry Bedson who was conducting studies on the Variola virus although funds and authorisations had been stopped in 1977.

Below: picture of Janet Parker

Bedson believed to be near to a turning point in the research of Variola, by using live samples of the virus itself. The researchers in the laboratory used to work on a version of it which had an airborne infecting power, so the vaccine had to be renew every 2 years in order to not be infected.

The laboratory though was completely inadequate to the safety measures: no separated showers or changing rooms, no special garments for preventing the contamination, no an adequate air ventilation system, as well as decontamination systems.

In 1966 an infection of Variola had already occured in the department of Anatomy, yet they believed that the cause was to be linked to a trip abroad that one of the collaborators did. For this reason no further medical investigation occurred and the case was filed.

Below: Human Variola Virus. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

The researchers of the laboratory of Microbiology renewed the vaccine every two years avoiding any infection, but all the other researchers from the nearby offices should have undergone the same treatment, whom they didn’t. Janet Parker did not obtain any vaccination after the 1966; the following investigation was not able to determine in which way the virus had spread in the ventilating system of the Institute.

When Janet displayed the first symptoms in August 1978, they initially thought about a simple cold, then a skin reaction to a medicine. Later on the pustules appeared and they thought about Varicella. On the 20th of August she was taken to Catherine-de-Barnes Isolation Hospital in Solihull, where they discovered it was in fact Variola major, the heaviest form of it. The woman, as well as her family and other 500 people whom she had come into contact with were quarantined.

The first person to die was Professor Henry Bedson, the first one to be informed about the patient’s diagnosis

Below: picture of Professor Henry Bedson

Probably, aware of his negligence, he cut his throat leaving an apologising letter behind  where he wrote:

“I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work and above all to have dragged into disrepute my wife and beloved children. I realise this act is the last sensible thing I have done but it may allow them to get some peace”.

A few days later Janet’s father died of heart failure, unable to handle the physical and mental pain of the situation and then Janet herself perished for the virus on the 11th of September, 1978.

A Commission of investigation was created in order to write a report of the accident where many faults in safety arose through its pages. A new campaign of vaccination to the whole world followed and in 1980 the WHO officially declared the virus as completely eradicated.

Below: the three directors of the “Smallpox Eradication Program” read the announcement that the virus was finally eradicated. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Due to the resistance of USA and Russia, in 2002, the The World Health Assembly, which in more occasions was recommending to all nations to destroy the stocks of viruses left in the laboratories, decided to allow the temporarily preservation of those for scientific research purposes.

Some scientists affirmed that the stocks were useful for the development of new vaccines, antiviral drugs and diagnostic tests. However in 2010, a team of experts of Public Health nominated by the World Health Assembly, concluded that there is no public health essential goal coming from the fact that USA and Russia keep on owning stocks of the virus.

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After the terrorist attack of the 11th of September 2001 in the US, the American government scared of a new attack but this time bioterrorist, started producing big quantities of vaccine, starting a program of vaccination to civils and soldiers.

Rachele Goracci


Vanilla Magazine - History, Culture, Mistery and Legends