Review article| Volume 142, ISSUE 4, P216-220, October 2003

Smallpox in history: the birth, death, and impact of a dread disease

  • John M. Eyler
    Reprint requests: John Eyler, MD, University of Minnesota, History of Medicine, 511 Diehl H, 505 Essex St SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA
    Program in the History of Medicine, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
    Search for articles by this author
      Smallpox, despite its savage effects, is a disease of civilization. It could hardly be otherwise. A virus that has only human hosts, that produces an acute disease of relatively short duration and leaves behind among the living only individuals with robust immunity and no chronic carriers could hardly have survived until large settled human communities appeared after the invention of horticulture and the domestication of animals. These altered conditions for human life probably permitted a pox virus of herd animals to find human beings a suitable host and to move from host to host in a timely fashion.
      • McNeill W.H.
      Plagues and peoples.
      The slim evidence that we possess from early human history, three Egyptian mummies showing suspicious eruptions of the skin and the more ambiguous testimony of early texts describing disease outbreaks, is consistent with this theory and suggests that smallpox spread from Egypt and Mesopotamia to India and China. We do know with much greater certainty that smallpox was endemic in all of these ancient cradles of civilization by the second century AD.
      • Fenner F.
      • Henderson D.A.
      • Arita I.
      • Ježek Z.
      • Ladnyi I.D.
      Smallpox and its eradication.
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