Smallpox: The Why? in My Memoir

IMG_2454                           Nigerian smallpox vaccination poster in the Hausa language


Smallpox: The Why?

It’s time to shift gears. It’s time for the Why. Not why I wrote Vaccines & Bayonets (I’ve already blogged about that), but why our family moved to Africa. Why my husband later left the family at home in the States while he worked in Bangladesh.

One reason.


W.H.O. photo of baby with very mild smallpox
Very mild smallpox

Can You Picture Smallpox?

What do you know about smallpox? If you arrived on this planet after the 1960s, you may never have heard much about it. You may not even have seen your grandmother’s vaccination scar. After all, the last routine smallpox vaccinations in the United States were in 1972. Ancient history, right?

Maybe you think, “Wasn’t that, like, a real bad rash or something?”

Is Smallpox Like Chickenpox?

Maybe you think smallpox is just a more severe form of chicken pox, which you may have had. You had some raised red bumps that became fluid-filled blisters. You might have had a headache and fever. The worst was that itch! An itch that made you want to climb the walls. But when it was over (probably 5 to 10 days) the scabs fell off, and despite a few small permanent pock marks (if you scratched and caused infection) your life was back to normal.

Thomas Jefferson on Smallpox and the Vaccine

In short, Thomas Jefferson’s 1806 prediction is coming true. As an amateur scientist he did a trial of the newly discovered vaccine on 200 people—his slaves, extended family, and neighbors. After seeing how spectacularly, and quickly, the vaccine protected against the disease, he wrote in a letter, “Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome disease has existed.”

Our family is part of that monumental history.

Over the next several posts I’ll give you a brief introduction to the Why, a picture of smallpox, and the disease through history. How it dethroned monarchies. How public health heroes defeated it.

The next two photos (Bangladesh, 1975) show moderate smallpox


Bangladesh - woman with smallpox, 1975


Bangladesh, grandmother carrying baby with smallpox, 1975

So why did our family move to Africa? And why did Carl go to Bangladesh? You are Looking at The Why


Smallpox: The Most Dreaded Scourge in History

An old German adage said, “From love and smallpox, but few remain free.”

Smallpox has been present in every part of the world and has killed more people than the plague (the Black Death) or cholera or yellow fever. It killed half-a-billion people in the 20th century alone.

  • There is no cure.
  • There is no treatment.
  • 25%-60% of victims die – an agonizing death.
  • 30%-40% of smallpox survivors are left blind.
  • 60%-85% of survivors are left with deep, disfiguring scars.

Vials of the smallpox virus still exist. Legally, only in two secure laboratories—one in the U.S., one in Russia. (More on this in a future post.)

Chasing Smallpox 


Here’s a brief excerpt from the opening chapter of my memoir.

“In the front seat with his driver, Carl leaned forward, searching. He had to find the group of nomads before they moved on. For my husband, vigilance was not optional.

“We knew exactly what was at stake. More than once today out here in the Sahel, this belt between Sahara and savanna, people had appeared out of nowhere, many with skin covered by the ugly, hard-earned badge of having survived smallpox. Running toward our truck, they raised their fists and shouted. ‘Ranka didi!‘ May you live long! Then the ululation—the long, emotional high-pitched trilling sound. It was a common response to our white Dodge Power Wagon and its blue-lettered sign, ‘Smallpox Measles Program.’”       Bee Bloeser in Vaccines & Bayonets

Smallpox Up Close

I had some textbook knowledge of smallpox. I’d seen photographs. But nothing prepared me for seeing a smallpox victim or survivor. Up close. In my next post I’ll try to let you see and smell the gruesome disease smallpox.

How do you feel about taking a closer look at smallpox?

Have you had a direct experience with the disease?

If you are one of those who knows far more than I about smallpox, welcome! I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for visiting my blog today.

6 thoughts on “Smallpox: The Why? in My Memoir

  1. You’re right, Pam Fox. From the time the vaccine was discovered, it took approximately 200 years for the potential to be fully realized. I’ll be hitting the highlights of that story in a post a few weeks down the road. So stay tuned! And thank you so much for providing that lead-in.

  2. At first I was startled that the vaccine was available in the early 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson used it, but that it took until (have I got this right?) the 1970s for smallpox to be eradicated. Then I realized that it’s still true that medications often don’t reach the people who need them. What a huge victory to get that smallpox vaccine to EVERYBODY. Amazing story. I’m really looking forward (like Janice in a previous comment) to reading your book with the whole story!

  3. Jeanne, most people are shocked by those statistics. I’m thankful for the opportunity to shed some light on the hideous disease and the public health victory that banished it. I’ll keep you posted with any news on the journey toward publication. I appreciate your comment.

  4. Janice, thanks for your question! It alerted me to a paragraph that was accidentally deleted. I’ve now put it back into the post. Here it is just for you: “Over the next several posts I’ll give you a brief introduction to the Why, a picture of smallpox, and the disease through history. How it dethroned monarchies. How public health heroes defeated it.” So stay tuned for more posts about smallpox, Janice, and thank you again.

  5. Hi, Bee. The statistics you cite of the enormous devastation caused by this disease stunned me. What a heroic mission you and Carl embarked upon. You showed clearly why the arrival of the vaccines would elicit deep gratitude. Few people can have the opportunity to make a lasting impact that improves the world. I can hardly wait until the book is published to read the full story.

  6. Bee, this is probably a curious question to be asking at this point, but, how is smallpox transmitted? Is it a virus? What is it that made it so widespread (before vaccinations) and so many degrees of mild, medium and serious cases? I’ve probably missed your explanation earlier.

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