18 May 2005

Smallpox Inoculations

I was poking around the Saudi Aramco World site (can I say again how much I love this magazine?) and found this article with a slightly different history of the smallpox vaccination.

The article quotes Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who was living in the Ottoman Empire in 1717 and describes the smallpox inoculations [engraftings] given at the time (Edward Jenner usually gets the credit for this in 1798):

The Small Pox, so fatal and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless by the invention of engrafting (which is the term they give it). There is a set of old Women who make it their business to perform the Operation. Every Autumn in the month of September, when the great Heat is abated, people send to one another to know if any of their family had a mind to have the small pox. They make partys for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly 15 or 16 together) the old Woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of smallpox and asks what veins you please to have open'd.

She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens 4 or 5 veins. The Grecians have commonly the superstition of opening one in the Middle of the forehead, in each arm and on the breast to mark the sign of the cross, but this had a very ill Effect, all these wounds leaving little Scars, and is not done by those that are not superstitious, who chuse to have them in the legs or that part of the arm that is conceal'd.

The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day and are in perfect health till the 8th. Then the fever begins to seize 'em and they keep their beds 2 days, very seldom 3. They have very rarely above 20 or 30 [pustules] in their faces, which never mark, and in 8 days time they are as well as before their illness. Where they are wounded there remains running sores during the Distemper, which I don't doubt is a great releif'd to it. Every year thousands undergo this Operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasingly that they take the Small pox here by way of diversion as they take the Waters in other Countrys. There is no example of any one that has dy'd in it, and you may beleive I am very well satisfy'd of the safety of the Experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little Son.

You have to admire the people who tried new and dangerous medical ideas. Vaccinations are commonplace today (although it's interesting that there are many today who say the risks outweigh the benefits) and it's difficult to imagine a time when disease was literally feared. It's not something that really concerns me- I know disease could strike my family at anytime, but really, it is a low risk.

(And, by the way, I'm not an extremist on either side of the vaccination debate. We vaccinate, but I don't see a need for some vaccinations quite as early as recommended.)

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