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The Small Pox

by J. H. Hacsi

Dr. Edward Jenner was furious at himself. He had grown up in dairy country and had known since he was a boy that when dairymaids contracted cowpox from the cows they milked, they considered themselves immune from smallpox.

Years before he’d watched as a young milker showed a pharmacist her hands, red and blistery with cowpox. Now she’d never take the smallpox, she’d remarked happily.

At the age of twenty-one, after a seven year apprenticeship in the country, Jenner had journeyed to London to study under the renowned Dr. John Hunter. One evening he had told Dr. Hunter about the common belief in dairy country that having cowpox made one immune to smallpox.

Is there any truth to that? Dr. Hunter had challenged him.

He’d had to admit he didn’t know. He knew there’d been failures. But if there were any truth to it, it might be possible to induce the far milder, never fatal cowpox to conquer the deadly red pox.

Back in 1770, that had been his dream, a powerful, exciting one. He’d had to push the dream out of his mind to keep up with his exhausting two years of study in London. Once back in Berkeley, he’d had to set up his practice. In the evenings there’d been clubs to join and friends to enjoy and once again he’d ignored his dream.

Now it was 1778 and another wave of the deadly pox had struck. Patients were crowding into his waiting room. Thinking back on all the time he had wasted, Jenner felt angry and ashamed.

Smallpox is believed to have first appeared in the human population about ten thousand BCE. It entered the European historical record in 581 CE when Bishop Gregory of Tours described a disease that was almost surely smallpox. Wave after wave of smallpox epidemics followed. Almost every European became infected during his lifetime and there was a mortality rate of approximately 30%. During the 18th Century it killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans each year.

This was the disease that Dr. Jenner was determined to conquer. Once the epidemic of 1778 came to an end, he threw himself into a passionate pursuit of this.

It took him another eighteen years before he felt confident enough to actually put his plan into action, ie, to find a test subject in whom he could first induce a case of cowpox and then, after a full recovery, inoculate with smallpox pus, a procedure that Jenner felt almost certain would not bring on the dreaded disease.

During those long years of study, Dr. Jenner met with angry rejection, both in London-based doctors and in the local dairymen whose cooperation he sought. Many saw him as a superstitious fool, buying into a myth circulated by ignorant milkmaids. Others spurned him for religious reasons. Any attempt to eradicate smallpox was sinful, a rejection of God’s will. If God didn’t want people to suffer the pox, he wouldn’t have let pox loose on the world.

Despite this rejection and the setbacks he experienced, Jenner stubbornly persisted. With his tireless perseverance, in time he solved all mysteries and proved to himself he’d been right all along. All that remained was to sell his procedure to the world.

This too took time but in the end his dream was realized. Vaccinations were mandated throughout the western world, following which the World Health Organization took over and conducted successful vaccination campaigns wherever they were needed. In 1979 the WHO certified that smallpox had been eradicated, the only human infectious disease of which this can be said.

The Age of Enlightenment is commonly thought to have begun around 1700. It was an optimistic mindset, one that was skeptical of received wisdom and advocated the use of reason to solve social problems. Edward Jenner is a shining example of the Enlightenment Age man. He did not view smallpox as a just punishment from God but as a problem to be solved.

There were two poxes people feared during the 18th century. One was the Great Pox, syphilis. The other got its name due to the resemblance of its rash to the rash of syphilis. To distinguish it from the Great Pox it was called the small pox, a misnomer for smallpox was much more deadly.

From the time the Great Pox first entered the historical record in Europe, it was known to be a venereal disease. No one ever seems to have considered whether the small pox might also have a sexual tie-in: sexual frustration, not indulgence. But with the two rashes so similar, this seems a possibility worth exploring.

There is a third inflammatory disease characterized by skin eruptions, especially on the face: acne. This tends to be a plague of adolescence, blighting those teenage years between puberty and adulthood.

Years ago I was delighted to hear a well known comedian, when asked on a TV game show whether he still remembered his first lover, affectionately mention a girl's name and then remark with gratitude that she had saved him from spending a fortune on acne medications. When I mentioned this to a Latina friend, she laughed and said that it is commonly accepted folklore among the Mexican people that acne is an expression of sexual frustration. Adult males tease pimpled teenage boys that all they need is a good woman to clear their skins.

Smallpox raged during those centuries that the Christian Church, with its tight strictures on sexual behavior, reigned supreme. In no area of his life was the 18th Century European in harsher chains than in his sex life. Life had eased, there was rebellion in the air, and healthy adults surely felt extreme frustration with the sexual restrictions imposed on them by their church, when even to enjoy sex with one’s spouse was suspect

Once the Age of Reason was firmly established, Europeans shrugged off their fear of eternal damnation, no longer put up with extreme sexual frustration, and smallpox was vanquished.


Excerpted from Plagues Past and Present, A Mind/Body/Approach by J. H. Hacsi. Paper, $14.

Available at Baker and Taylor, www.Amazon.com or on order from any bookstore.


J. H. graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earlier in her life wrote short stories (over 200 published) and romance novels (eight published). Throughout her life she has been greatly interested in history and science, also the role of the mind and mysticism and has read widely in these fields. She is a widow with five sons and five grandchildren and lives in Claremont, CA.

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