Monday, 17 May 2010

Smallpox

On this day…..261 years ago, Edward Jenner, the man who discovered the smallpox vaccine, was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. Jenner discovered that by infecting someone with the much milder cowpox virus, you could protect them against smallpox, which had been killing an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year.

The disease had done its cataclysmic worst, though, in the New World, where native populations were completely lacking in immunity. The Spanish conquistadores terrified the Indians with their fire-spitting guns, but actually the smallpox virus was the deadliest weapon they brought.

It began in the early sixteenth century by cutting a swath through the populations of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba. Then Hernan Cortes took it with him to Mexico, and when the Aztecs tried to resist him, they were cut down by the virus, and “died in heaps, like bedbugs.”

The Incas met a similar fate, with their great king, Huayna Capac, among those who died. Smallpox, helped by other imported illnesses, like mumps and measles, would reduce their numbers from seven to just one million. (See also my blog of Nov 6.)

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