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What does history teach us about plagues & vaccines?

Dr Victor Luca

Published The Beacon 19-Nov-21

A Swiss certificate certifying that the bearer is free of cholera and other contagious infections, 1832.

As we try to navigate through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic one would think that we haven’t been here before. The truth is that humanity has been in this position many times, especially recently. The difference between the present pandemic and the many past pandemics is that science has come to the rescue in record time with amazingly effective vaccines, and soon, effective anti-viral drugs.

In a previous opinion piece (17-Jun-20) I provided a history of pandemics and plagues starting from the Antonine plague of 165-180 CE. That plague was named after Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome. That plague was most likely smallpox and he probably died of it. Historians consider that the plague was most likely to have contributed to the fall of the Roman empire. Marcus maintained that:

“He who lives in harmony with himself, lives in harmony with the universe” and “The universe is a single living being, possessed of a single substance and a single soul, and what is good and right in itself, is to live in harmony with nature”.

Smallpox is an airborne disease and has been a scourge from the time of Marcus, through the middle ages and into the 19th century. The first case of smallpox was identified in New Zealand in the very year we became a nation.

The smallpox outbreak in Germany just prior to our nationhood is well documented and worth considering. Between 1758 and 1774, 6,705 people died of smallpox in Berlin alone with the most frequent victims being children under five years of age. It is estimated that between one-in-six and one-in-ten smallpox victims died.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that in Germany around 1835, anyone who wished to obtain any type of state grant or state benefit had to show a vaccination certificate. Parents who had not allowed their children to be vaccinated could be fined, or even arrested, if their children contracted smallpox and became a source of infection for the general public.

So out of control was the scourge of smallpox in Germany that the medical profession was rendered helpless. Many people therefore did not even try to prevent their children becoming infected, but instead sought an opportune time, for example during a mild epidemic, for their children to catch the disease. This was how the practice of Pockenkaufen (buying smallpox) arose.

Children who were intended to fall ill were sent into a smallpox infirmary where parents paid for a smallpox scab to rub into their hands. There was only a short step between Pockenkaufen and inoculation. Inoculation, is the transmission of genuine smallpox virus under the skin (generally the arm) and had been known in India for a long time, and also in Greece and the Ottoman Empire since the seventeenth century. Due to its cost, inoculation was a procedure that only the rich had ready access to.

As we sleep walk through this pandemic we would do well to remember the lessons of the past and also the notions of Marcus Aurelius who emphasized our dependence on nature and that everything is linked to everything else.

So I strongly encourage readers to get vaccinated so that we can put this pandemic behind us and concentrate on the real causes of pandemics and climate change which are merely symptoms of the bigger problem of the uncontrolled explosion in human development, consumption and our plunder of the planet’s resources which impacts every part of the ecosphere.


Claudia Huerkamp. History of Smallpox Vaccination in Germany: A First Step in the Medicalization of the General Public. Journal of Contemporary History, 1985, 20(4) 617-635.

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