9 December 1979: smallpox virus eradicated

For thousands of years, smallpox was the scourge of humanity. In the 20th century alone, it is estimated to have killed 300 million people. Once infected, there was no effective treatment, and there was a one in three chance of dying.

The oldest evidence of smallpox is from the 12th century BC in the tomb of Rameses V. From Egypt, the disease spread along trade routes to India, then to China. By the sixth century it had reached Japan. It didn’t appear in Europe until the 11th and 12th centuries.

Like many infectious diseases, smallpox was unknown in the Americas until Europeans arrived. But once it was introduced, it devastated the indigenous people.

‘Variolation’ was an early attempt at vaccination practised in China. Dried smallpox scab powder was inhaled, causing a mild form of the disease. But still, it had a death rate of up to 3%. And it had the added disadvantage of being capable of spreading a smallpox epidemic of its own.

The practice was brought to Britain in 1721 by Lady Mary Montagu, wife of the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who had successfully inoculated her son while in Constantinople. With smallpox killing some 400,000 people in Europe every year, inoculation became very popular, and was even taken up by the royal family. Unfortunately, George III’s young sons Octavius and Alfred were two of the 3% who succumbed to the disease.

In 1796, Edward Jenner discovered a more effective vaccine derived from the related cowpox virus, using eight-year-old James Phipps as a test subject. He published his findings in 1798.

It wasn’t until 1966, with some two million people dying of the disease every year, that the World Health Organisation embarked on a worldwide eradication programme. The last case of smallpox in the wild was recorded in Somalia in 1977. And the last ever case was in Birmingham in 1978, when a lab technician mysteriously contracted the virus and died.

And so, on this day in 1979, the Global Commission for Certification of Smallpox Eradication reported from Geneva that the disease had been eradicated. The World Health Organisation accepted their conclusions on 8 May 1980. The total cost of the programme was estimated at US$300m. But the saving to the global economy is estimated at $1bn a year.

Also on this day

9 December 1960: Coronation Street is first broadcast

The first episode of Coronation Street, the world’s longest-running soap opera, was broadcast live on this day in 1960. But it was far from assured. Read more here.