The chilling experiment which created the first vaccine

King Charles IV had lost several members of his own family to smallpox, while others – including his daughter Maria Luisa – were left scarred after surviving the disease. When he heard of Jenner’s vaccine, he commissioned a physician to lead a global expedition to deliver it to the furthest reaches of the Spanish Empire. Although to be fair, most of these areas of the world were places European colonists had introduced smallpox to in the first place.

In 1803, the ship sailed for South America. On board were 22 orphans to act as vaccine carriers.

“There is no way of mass-producing vaccine, so they give it to a child,” explains Najera. “The child will develop the lesion, then they take it from their child a couple of days later, give it to the next child and so on and so forth down the line.”

The children were cared for on the journey by the orphanage director, Isabel de Zendala y Gomez, who also brought along her own son to contribute to the mission.

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Just to be clear, the children were given cowpox, not smallpox.

On a similar note, I got chickenpox in 1st or 2nd grade. I was the oldest, so my little sisters hadn’t been exposed to the witch’s brew of infectious diseases found in elementary schools. My mother decided she wanted to get it over with all at once, so she didn’t isolate me from my sisters knowing they would also get chickenpox. Over a 2 week span the family was done worrying about chickenpox. I’m guessing this was a common practice for other kids of the 70’s and 80’s.


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