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Smallpox: A History


Smallpox, now eradicated from the world, was a contagious disease caused by the variola virus. It could be transmitted directly or indirectly through airborne particles or contaminated items. During the incubation period (first 10-14 days before symptoms), people show no symptoms and are not contagious. After this period, symptoms included fever, headache, severe fatigue, and severe back pain. A few days later, red spots that turn into small blisters appear all over the body. Infected people remained contagious until their last smallpox scabs fell off.

Origin of Smallpox: While the origin is largely unknown, many believe smallpox dates back to the Egyptian empire, around 200 BCE based on a smallpox-like rash found on a few mummies. Also, around the 4th century CE in China, a written description of a disease resembling smallpox appeared.

Spread of Smallpox: The virus mostly spread due to trade along the Silk Routes, which extended from Asia to Europe. As outlined by the CDC, smallpox spread to many countries through many centuries:

● 6th century - Japan is introduced to smallpox due to increased trade with China and Korea

● 7th century - Arab expansion spread smallpox into Spain, Portugal, and northern Africa

● 11th century - the Crusades (a series of religious wars to recover the Holy Land) spread smallpox throughout Europe

● 15th century - Portuguese occupation of western Africa spread smallpox there

● 16th century - European colonization and African slave trade spread smallpox throughout Central & South América

● 17th century - European colonization spread smallpox into North America

● 18th century - English exploration spread smallpox to Australia


During medieval times, many herbal treatments, cold treatments, and herbal cloths were used to either prevent or treat smallpox. The most successful way of combating smallpox before the discovery of the vaccine was inoculation (also referred to as variolation), which involved putting the smallpox virus to non-immune individuals. Edward Jenner is well known for his innovative contribution to the immunization and eradication of smallpox. For many years, Jenner heard the milkmaids who had cowpox did not catch smallpox. To test this theory, in May of 1796, Jenner inoculated a healthy 8-year-old boy with matter from cowpox lesions from a young dairymaid. The boy developed some symptoms, like rashes and a fever. Once the boy recovered, he was inoculated with smallpox, and no disease developed, which led to the conclusion that cowpox provided protection against smallpox. After much speculation and criticism, the use of vaccination spread throughout Europe.

BY: Richa Kuklani

Sources: Riedel, Stefan. “Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination.” ​US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health,​ Baylor Health Care System, Jan. 2005,

“Smallpox Vaccines.” ​World Health Organization​, World Health Organization, 5 Dec. 2017,

“Vaccine Basics.” ​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,​ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 July 2017,

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