For more than 3,000 years, smallpox
killed or badly disfigured many millons of people. On average, the
disease killed up to thirty percent of those infected, and the majority
of survivors carried deep scars (pockmarks), oftentimes concentrated
on their faces.
It was not until 1796 that an English
doctor, Edward Jenner, developed a vaccine from non-lethal cowpox
to protect people from the disease. Unfortunately, it would take more
than a century for Jenner's vaccine to be distributed widely. In North
Carolina, as in other locations, it proved difficult for medical authorities
to convince citizens to submit to being deliberately infected with
a "pox," even one that offered protection from Variola
North Carolina paper money, 1779.
During the late colonial period and until Raleigh's founding in
1792, New Bern served as North Carolina's principal seat of government.
That town, too, was where the public printer, James Davis, produced
North Carolina's paper money. In 1779, when smallpox hit New Bern,
state official immediately ceased the printing of currency there,
fearing that hand-to-hand exchanges of infected bills could spread
the disease. Hugh Walker, a printer in Wilmington, was then hired
by the state to create the 1779 issue. This specimen of Walker's
work is from the University Library's 10,000-piece numismatic collection.
Select image to enlarge
THE GREATEST KILLER
Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of
1775-82 by Elizabeth A. Fenn (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).
In this book, North Carolina historian Elizabeth Fenn focuses on
the swath of misery that smallpox cut through American military
and civilian populations during the Revolution. She documents how
smallpox killed more than 100,000 people on the continent between
1775 and 1782. She also summarizes the disease's earlier tolls,
how it had struck down and disfigured an even greater number of
people in the colonial period.
This illustration from Pox Americana depicts a localized
outbreak on a patient's upper arm after a smallpox inoculation.
In cases when patients contracted the most virulent strain of the
virus "naturally," the infected were often covered with
thousands of these oozing skin eruptions from head to toe. If the
eruptions or pustules merged into larger lesions, rampant
bacterial infections and death were near certainties.
Select image to enlarge
"Our ignorant and
malicious neighbors threatened to destroy the town if we inoculated,
so the small-pox stayed among us until October . . . This condition
practically cut off all intercourse with Salem, and if people came
or passed through they were afraid. It was customary for such people
to have a leaf of tobacco which they smelled as a preventative,
some stuck tobacco leaves in their nostrils, one even saw some passerby
who had smeared tar on the forehead, under the nose, and elsewhere."
The Moravian Records
Salem, N.C., 1779
"THE NORTH CAROLINA ACCIDENT"
The Raleigh Register, 1822.
During the 1820s, North Carolina became a focal point of controversy
relating to the inoculation and vaccination of citizens for smallpox.
In 1813 Congress passed an act to encourage vaccination and appointed
a federal agent, Dr. James Smith of Baltimore, Maryland, to distribute
smallpox vaccine throughout the country. This act created one of
the first public health programs in the United States. The wisdom
of Dr. Smith's method, however, came into question when in November
of 1821 he inadvertently mailed an envelope of live smallpox scabs
instead of vaccine to Dr. John Ward in Tarboro, N. C. The contents
of the envelope began an epidemic. Before it ended, come sixty people
around Tarboro were sick, with ten more dead. As a result of this
accident, Congress passed a law repealing the 1813 Vaccination Act,
and thereby abdicated its role in combating smallpox. Another eighty
years passed before Congress again addressed this serious issue.
Article from The News & Observer (Raleigh,
N.C.), November 2, 2002.
The scourge of smallpox as a naturally occurring
contagion appears today to be a bygone health concern. There has
been no documented case of it in the United States since 1949; and
in 1979 the World Health Organization declared the disease officially
eradicated. This pronouncement came two years after the last reported
case of smallpox was treated successfully in west Africa. Notwithstanding
such documentation, fear of the disease persists. Samples of the
virus may remain buried or hidden within the stockpiles of national
arsenals and preserved in undisclosed medical research laboratories.
One rising, global concern is that terrorist groups could one day
cultivate smallpox and unleash it as a biological weapon against
concentrated, highly susceptible civilian targets.
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