The Tragic Story Of How Smallpox Claimed Its Last Victim

Samuel Reason | August 21st, 2019

Smallpox was thought to have been eradicated across the whole world, yet in 1978 the last known case of smallpox was reported, and it led to the death of 40-year-old photographer Janet Parker. So how in the world did this disease turn up in Britain’s second-biggest city?

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Janet Parker was a medical photographer, she first started feeling unwell on Friday 11th August. Within just a couple of days, she had developed terrible red spots all over her back, limbs, and face. The doctor she saw advised it was chickenpox, but her mother was very skeptical of this diagnosis. She had already nursed her daughter through chickenpox during her childhood, and the extremely large blistering pustules appearing all over her body were very different.

With zero signs of improvement, she was admitted into an isolation ward at the Catherine-de-Barnes hospital in Solihull on 20 August. By this point Mrs. Parker was so weak she could no longer stand. This is when the doctors confirmed their worse fears: smallpox was back. It was largely thought the disease had been eradicated and that the last case had been reported in Somalia – what was it doing in Birmingham?

An ancient disease, smallpox has been feared for thousands of years across the world. The disease killed over a third of those it was able to infect, and in the 20th century is thought to have killed an estimated 300 million people. Even if you were able to survive, you were often left extremely scarred. A global vaccination program put in place by the World Health Organization (WHO) was able to wipe out the disease and by the 1970s cases were extremely rare.

It is thought Mrs. Parker contracted the disease from working with Prof Bedson at the smallpox laboratory. Prof Bedson had dedicated his whole life to defeating the disease and blamed himself for what happened. There was a theory regarding the ventilation going wrong at the laboratory, but if that was the case more people would have been infected. On September 11, Mrs. Parker died from complications around the disease, and Prof Bedson could not live with the guilt took his own life. No one knows how she contradicted the disease.

Two years later, smallpox was officially declared to have been eradicated.

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