#OTD in 1725 – Five Dublin children receive the first recorded smallpox inoculations in Ireland.

Smallpox is an acute contagious disease caused by the variola virus, a member of the orthopoxvirus family. It was one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity and caused millions of deaths before it was eradicated. It is believed to have existed for at least 3000 years.  

The name ‘smallpox’ was coined in the 15th century to distinguish it from the ‘great pox’, better known as syphilis. However, smallpox’s history on earth is believed to date back thousands of years. 

The smallpox vaccine, created by Edward Jenner in 1796, was the first successful vaccine to be developed. He observed that milkmaids who previously had caught cowpox did not catch smallpox and showed that a similar inoculation could be used to prevent smallpox in other people.

Between 1661 and 1746 smallpox is believed to have been the cause of 20% of all deaths in Dublin city and a third of all child’s deaths in the area.

By the 18th century, hope emerged and an inoculation technique was found. Since the 10th century, the Chinese had been inoculating people, by using a small dose of the disease. The technique did not arrive in Europe for almost 800 years. 

This technique was first tried on prisoners in Cork Gaol in 1721, presumably against their will. Four years later five children in Dublin received the inoculation on 26 August 1725. By the middle of the 18th century, the inoculation was in widespread use. The South Infirmary, in Cork, even initiated a program to inoculate the poor.

The World Health Organisation launched an intensified plan to eradicate smallpox in 1967. Widespread immunisation and surveillance were conducted around the world for several years. The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977. In 1980 WHO declared smallpox eradicated – the only infectious disease to achieve this distinction. This remains among the most notable and profound public health successes in history.

Edward Jenner performing his first smallpox vaccination on a child in 1796 | (Science History Images / Alamy)

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