Pox across the water
September 18, 2017 9:15 PM   Subscribe

As the 1800s dawned, 22 orphans boarded a Spanish ship, under the care of their orphanage director and a team of doctors and nurses. As they set sail across the Atlantic, the plan was set in motion: they infected one of the children with cowpox. Over the following months, they passed the virus from one child to the other, in carefully spaced succession, to create a living transmission chain that would reach the Americas. They thus carried the smallpox vaccine to the new world in what became known as the Balmis Expedition.
posted by Cobalt (25 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
This is so crazy, and scary, and cool. Thank you for sharing.
posted by samthemander at 9:44 PM on September 18 [3 favorites]

Geez that was close - “When at last he reached Caracas in Venezuela, only one boy still had fresh pustules. But one boy was enough!”
But what happened to the foundlings? - “Happily they were settled in Mexico, educated at the expense of the Spanish treasury, and eventually adopted by local families.”
posted by unliteral at 9:59 PM on September 18 [8 favorites]

I still say it sounds like a supervillain plot.
posted by ckape at 10:12 PM on September 18 [3 favorites]

This is a very cool story and I one I hadn't heard before- thanks!
posted by freethefeet at 10:23 PM on September 18 [1 favorite]

I miss the days you could use orphans for stuff
posted by edeezy at 11:10 PM on September 18 [41 favorites]

Metafilter: I miss the days you could use orphans for stuff
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:01 AM on September 19 [7 favorites]

Futility Closet had an interesting podcast episode about this.
posted by Ms. Next at 4:21 AM on September 19 [3 favorites]

Overheard at the orphans' picnic:

"I dress up as a bat and fight crime."

"I dress up as a spider and fight crime."

"I cured smallpox in the Western Hemisphere."


"Well, check out Mr. Overachiever here!"
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:28 AM on September 19 [17 favorites]

Now that's what I call a colony ship. Another one for the 'SF short story writes itself' file.

I note there is a condition called pseudocowpox, with the delightful common name of Milker's Nodule.
posted by Devonian at 4:39 AM on September 19 [10 favorites]

Wow this is fascinating - thanks!
posted by chemicalsyntheticist at 5:50 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]

This. This is what science, carefully applied, can do.

Sidestepping the ethics of using orphans (but noting that the Spanish Crown settled the kids afterward), the idea of vaccinating the entire Spanish New World just for the sheer reduction in misery. The *audacity* of it!

Two centuries ago, despite a world that was OK with monarchies and slavery, people engaged in this mission of mercy. Two centuries later, we send robots to the outer planets and communicate around the world instanteously, but can't even agree that poor people shouldn't die of preventable disease.
posted by notsnot at 6:34 AM on September 19 [28 favorites]

(note that this is probably my first post sans profanity in a long, long time.)
posted by notsnot at 6:35 AM on September 19 [4 favorites]

Medical Ethics have come a long way since Jenner first tested his vaccine on his gardener's 8 year old son.
posted by Bee'sWing at 7:26 AM on September 19 [2 favorites]

There's some really audacious medical mercy stories from the times when medicine had not very many tools in its basket and some genius-level creativity was put into how they could be used. There's the famous Snow pump handle story, of course, but others more obscure.

Over the years my favorite has been the story of two Polish doctors who saved people from being deported to Nazi camps by deliberately causing positive tests for typhus. They injected them with an innocuous bacteria which happened to cause the same reaction to the test as the real typhus bacillus. The patients and their entire neighborhoods would be quarantined rather than deported, such was the Wehrmacht's fear of typhus getting among their troops.

Another one I like is that the first worthwhile chemotherapy drugs were discovered after a bombing raid on Bari during the Invasion of Italy in WWII. The Americans had brought some mustard gas with them as a "just in case", which was released accidentally during the attack, and one of the physicians dealing with the aftermath noted that it suppressed fast-dividing lymphocytes in those affected. And before the war he had studied a common form of lymphoma....

Even so, I think the Balmis Expedition one may have leaped up to the top of my personal hit parade and bumped those two down.
posted by Quindar Beep at 8:03 AM on September 19 [12 favorites]

Hey, I wrote an article about that Barí story.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:05 AM on September 19 [6 favorites]

Fascinating. Thanks.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:36 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]

This is fascinating. But so many questions!

What happened to the orphans? What were their lives like? How were they treated in Mexico?

What happened to the Mexican orphans? Where did they end up? Did they survive the voyage?

What happened to Isabel de Zendala y Gomez? Did she survive the trip back to Spain? How much sexual harassment and assault did she have to deal with, exactly?
posted by medusa at 11:06 AM on September 19 [3 favorites]

Instead of transporting orphans with cowpox, why not cows? Christopher Columbus brought cattle and horses to the western hemisphere way back in 1493. It was not a difficult feat. Seems rather heartless to treat orphans as laboratory vessels.
posted by JackFlash at 11:46 AM on September 19 [1 favorite]

The infection just lasts a few days. So you could use lightweight orphans for your chain or big fat cows.

Though, I guess you could roast the cows and eat them for dinner after they recovered from their cowpox.

[I am joking.]
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:10 PM on September 19 [2 favorites]

What I find interesting is how *quickly* the idea of vaccination spread. Obviously, there was the forerunner of variolation as a guide, but in 1797 Jenner demonstrates that cowpox can be used, and 5 years later this literally world-circling expedition is sent out.
posted by tavella at 1:48 PM on September 19 [2 favorites]

Joking aside, that seems quite a modest proposal, JackFlash
posted by Quindar Beep at 2:42 PM on September 19

Somewhat embarrassed to confess, I have a copy of Founding Mothers by Cokie Robert's. It's one of the strangest specimens of modern historiography; maybe that's why. Anyway, Cokie claims on or about 1764, J. Quincy took the cure in Boston.
This was an extremely unpleasant procedure, and Abigail's parents had apparently decided not to subject their children to it. The course of the treatment involved days of medication before the inoculation, and then weeks of confinement with other sufferers. The serum gave patients a mild case of smallpox which made them quite sick but protected them from the ravages of an epidemic, assuming they lived through the treatment. Since smallpox was so deadly, many Americans decided the inoculation, with all its perils, was preferable to contracting the disease itself, or living in dread of it.

So I gotta wonder. How an African slave in 1520 managed to keep pustules alive! over a two month? voyage to introduce smallpox to the Western Hemisphere all by his lonesome.
posted by marycatherine at 3:25 PM on September 19

He didn't do it on his lonesome. But it might not have required many people in the chain. Smallpox takes about 1 to 2 weeks to take hold and then takes about another 1 or 2 weeks to get to the eruptive stage.
posted by Bee'sWing at 5:05 PM on September 19 [1 favorite]

Fascinating story. So many twists and turns!

First , they were true believers :
"Isabel de Zendala y Gomez, the director of the orphanage ... brought her son along so that he, too, could contribute to the mission."

Thunder stolen:
"De Balmis's expedition reached Puerto Rico on 9 February 1804, where he suffered a major disappointment: to his surprise, smallpox vaccination had already been instituted on the island . The vaccine had been previously obtained from the Virgin Islands."

Still much work to be done:
"He worked with the governor to organize a central vaccination board. Thereafter, in every place they stopped, vaccination boards were established."

Vested interests:
"Salvany appealed to the viceroy of Peru, but the decrees calling for mass vaccinations in Lima were not heeded. Vaccination had become a profitable business for local physicians, who resented the potential loss of income that would be caused by the expedition. Luckily, a new viceroy arrived in Lima who strongly supported the expedition's endeavors. More than 197,000 vaccinations were administered in Peru."

Like Energizer bunny, they kept going:
"The expedition arrived in Manila (Philippines) on 15 April 1805. It is estimated that close to 20,000 individuals were vaccinated by de Balmis's crew in the Philippines."
posted by metaseeker at 10:25 PM on September 19 [2 favorites]

Also infecting local herds of cows, so there would be a future supply. It was truly a remarkable feat of forethought and organization. I grant you the dodgy in modern eyes use of orphans as carriers, but given the director brought her own child along as part of the chain, it wasn't just simple exploitation.
posted by tavella at 10:25 AM on September 20 [2 favorites]

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