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kottke.org posts about smallpox

How Children Took the Smallpox Vaccine Around the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2020

With the first approved Covid-19 vaccines set to roll out in the US soon, some of the focus has shifted to how the vaccine will be distributed and its equitable allocation. Part of the distribution logistics puzzle is making sure there are enough glass vials to hold and transport the vaccine around the nation to those waiting to be vaccinated. For the New Yorker, Christopher Payne took some photos of two Corning factories that are manufacturing vials as fast as they can.

But back in the early 19th century, for a colonial empire dealing with overseas smallpox epidemics, glass vials were not an option. Smallpox vaccination at that time was most reliably accomplished by transferring material from cowpox blisters on one person (or cow) to another person. The freshly inoculated person got a little sick but later proved to be immune to the much deadlier smallpox. So when Spain’s Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition set sail in 1803 to inoculate the inhabitants of their overseas colonies for smallpox, they used the bodies of human beings to transport the vaccine. To be more specific, they used “twenty-two orphan boys, ages three to nine”.1

And so it was that, “in the era before refrigeration, freeze-dried vaccines, and jet aircraft,” writes medical historian John Bowers, “the successful circumnavigation of the globe with the vaccine…rested on a single medium — little boys.” During the long crossing, approximately twenty-two orphans who had not previously contracted smallpox or cowpox were “vaccinated in pairs every ninth or tenth day,” via arm-to-arm inoculation (taking lymph from an unbroken pustule on a recently vaccinated boy and introducing it under the skin of another). This created a vaccine chain — the vaccine remained active and viable for the entire journey.

The three-year expedition was success and an early & effective example of philanthropic healthcare, but you also have to note here that the reason the Americas were ravaged by smallpox was because Spain brought it there in the first place.

Update: In The Atlantic, Sam Kean provides some more detail on the vaccination effort.

Given the era, it’s likely that no one asked the orphans whether they wanted to participate — and some seemed too young to consent anyway. They’d been abandoned by their parents, were living in institutions, and had no power to resist. But the Spanish king, Carlos IV, decided to make them a few promises: They would be stuffed with food on the voyage over to make sure they looked hearty and hale upon arrival. After all, no one would want lymph from the arm of a sickly child. Appearance mattered. And they’d get a free education in the colonies, plus the chance at a new life there with an adoptive family. It was a far better shake than they’d get in Spain.

  1. The article describes these children as “orphaned” but I wonder if it’s not more accurate to describe them as “enslaved”. Surely these kids didn’t have a real choice in whether they wanted to be infected with cowpox and carried overseas in a cramped ship.