Several people have commented to me that they were disappointed that they missed Isabel Gordon’s talk on smallpox at the end of March.

One person forgot to change the clocks, another had a puncture on the way, another went to our old meeting place in Melrose.

They missed a very interesting talk. She started by telling us that her vaccination was in the thigh, as it was for other girls, so that it didn’t mar the upper arm, just in case that girl, might later in life, wear a sleeveless evening dress - how thoughtful of the doctor! We learnt that smallpox dates back to before 10,000 BC and came from the Middle East, that Pharaoh Rameses V died in 1,145 BC of smallpox. Isabel mentioned lots of other people well-known to history who suffered from smallpox or died of it, including Saint Nicasius, Bishop of Rheims, who, though he was decapitated by the invading Vandals in 407 AD, in the cathedral he founded, picked up his head and walked to the altar, reciting a psalm. He is the patron saint of smallpox victims.

It was called smallpox in the 15th century to differentiate it from syphilis, which at that time was known as the great pox. It is a crowd disease that passed by inhalation, though can stay active on clothes, blankets and other objects. So the North American Indian tribes, the Aztecs and the Incas were devastated by smallpox, and the native tribes in Canada were infected by missionaries and priests possibly through donations of bedding or clothes. It’s clear that smallpox was a major disease in Europe from at least the 15th century, killing at least 400,000 people each year and leaving visible evidence of the disease on the faces of millions of others. Smallpox seems to have been taken as inevitable right up until the mid-19th century in Britain and only a few lucky individuals came through it, unspoilt. The Chinese had a defence against it, more than 1,000 years ago, by blowing powdered smallpox scabs up the noses of healthy people – a form of inoculation. Though reports of this practice reached London in 1700, it wasn’t accepted by the medical profession and it was almost 100 years before Edward Jenner demonstrated the effectiveness of using cowpox to protect people from smallpox.

Wikipedia lists six 19th century acts about vaccination, though it’s not clear whether they all affected Scotland: in 1840, making it available free of charge; in 1853, making it compulsory for every healthy child; the 1867, 1871 and 1873 acts extending the requirement for children to be compulsorily vaccinated; the 1898 act while guaranteeing the right of parents to choose whether to have their baby vaccinated, effectively made it very difficult to avoid. Smallpox was declared to be globally eradicated in 1980. Children are no longer vaccinated so they are potentially at risk, if it comes back. How can it do that, if it’s been eradicated? The smallpox virus is stored by several nations, supposedly for research but could potentially be used for biological warfare.

Peter Munro