One of our ancestor’s greatest fears was the highly contagious disease smallpox. There were two types of smallpox: Variola major, the more severe, with 30-50% fatalities and Variola minor with 1-2% fatalities.

Within seven to seventeen days after being exposed to smallpox, the victim would experience fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting and severe muscle aches. By the fourth day, the fever would drop and the rash would appear.  Once the rash appeared, the patient was infectious.  The rash began as spots called macules which became raised papules. The papules enlarge and become filled with fluid and are then called vesicles. As the fluid changes from clear to pus-like, the spots are called pustules. Fever during the rash is common.  After time, the pustules crust over and eventually the scabs fall off. This process can take from three to four weeks and scarring is common. The infectious period ends only when the last scab has fallen off.

Many cases ended in death, usually in the second week of infection. Most survivors had some permanent scarring, which could be extensive. Facial scarring was especially dreaded. Other deformities could result, such as loss of lip, nose, and ear tissue. Blindness could occur as a result of corneal scarring.

Smallpox was spread by close contact with the sores or respiratory droplets of an infected person. Contaminated bedding or clothing could also spread the disease.

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox never contracted smallpox. He used cowpox to inoculate an eight-year old boy in both arms. After the boy recovered from a brief fever, Jenner injected him with smallpox and he showed no signs of infection.

Smallpox epidemics were common. Some notable ones which may have affected our ancestors were in New France (Canada) 1702-03, 1733; the Thirteen Colonies 1721-22, 1755-56, 1775-82. As early as 1853 England passed legislation making smallpox vaccination compulsory for every child. In 1855 Massachusetts passed the first U.S. law mandating vaccination for schoolchildren.

Leona Bassett aged about four years.
Leona Bassett aged about four years.

My grandmother, Leona Bassett Kline, recalled being vaccinated for small pox as a child. After Leona’s mother died in 1897, Jule Bassett hired women to keep house and care for his four small children. The daughter of their housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, had been vaccinated. “Mrs. Warren took a knife, scraped some matter from her daughter’s arm, rubbed my skin until it was ready to bleed, and smeared the matter from her daughter onto my arm. In a few days we knew it had ‘taken.’ My arm swelled up and got sore.”