On This Day – 26 August 1725 – Smallpox


Its effects were feared for centuries before it was finally declared to have been eradicated by the World Health Organisation in 1980. The last recorded case of this dreadful disease was in Somalia in 1977. Good riddance smallpox, which plagued this country for generations.

Ireland has more than a nodding acquaintance with smallpox. It originally got its name in the 15th century to distinguish it from ‘great pox’ aka syphilis. Around one third of its victims died. Many survivors were left with the scars of the disease in the form of permanently pock-marked skin. As recently as half a century ago, in 1967, two million people died of smallpox worldwide.

The disease inspired particular dread in Ireland where smallpox and its ugly sisters, cholera, typhoid and dysentery made themselves at home for hundreds of years and exploited extreme poverty and ignorance to devastating effect. The symptoms of the disease were high fever, headache, pain in the back and muscles. Children might also experience vomiting and convulsions.

If you didn’t die of smallpox in 18th and 19th century Ireland you probably went blind. The next time you hear the music of the great harpist Turlough O’Carolan from Nobber in County Meath think of smallpox. It blinded him at the age of eighteen in 1688 making him virtually useless for any occupation until he developed a talent as a harpist and a facility for musical composition. Many other itinerant harpists had been similarly afflicted.

The disease, which was highly contagious and infectious, is believed to have caused about one fifth of all deaths in the city of Dublin between 1661 and 1746. About a third of all child deaths were probably caused by smallpox. Although it mainly afflicted the poor it was no respecter of rank. The children of the rich could die of the disease just as quickly as those closer to the breadline.

Hope emerged towards the beginning of the 18th century when the efficacy of inoculation started to become apparent. Inoculating people with small doses of the virus had apparently been practiced in China since the 10th century but didn’t really begin to make inroads in Europe for almost another eight hundred years. In Ireland the technique was first tried on a number of, presumably unwilling, prisoners in Cork Jail in 1721. Four years later the experiment was extended to five children in Dublin.

As the effectiveness became clear the better off began to use inoculation to protect themselves and their children.  During periodic epidemics in the mid to late 18th centuries the survival rate among the wealthy families who had engaged in the practice encouraged its more widespread use. The South Infirmary in Cork even initiated a programme to inoculate the poor.

Naturally where there was money to be made there were charlatans. Travelling inoculators with a very basic grasp, if any, of what they were doing, competed for trade. In Donegal in 1781 all but one child of a group of fifty-two died when one unqualified practitioner purported to inoculate them.

Whatever inroads were being made in Ireland against the disease came to virtually nothing with the onset of the Great Famine of the 1840s when smallpox returned with a grim vengeance. Even for sufferers who survived the recovery period of the disease ensured that many were pauperized and died anyway with breadwinners unable to work.

It was only from the 1880s onwards that the disease began to be more rapidly eradicated in Ireland. In the 1870s more than seven and a half thousand people died of smallpox. By the first decade of the 20th century that figure was down to sixty-five. Between 1901 and 1910 almost a million Irish people were vaccinated against the disease.

A global campaign by the World Health Organisation begun in 1967 bore fruit and now smallpox can only return via the insanity of chemical warfare.

Five Dublin children received the first voluntary smallpox innoculations in Ireland
 two hundred and ninety one years ago, on this day.