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A look back at smallpox

The possibility of contracting smallpox once struck fear in the hearts of local residents. The disease took an estimated 300 million lives in the 20th century, continuing to result in deaths here in Hartselle into the 1970s.  

The scientific name for smallpox is variola major, a virus from the orthpoxvirus family. 

Smallpox was identified as officially eradicated in 1980. Now, the only possibility for the deadly disease to make a comeback is as an instrument of bioterrorism. 

The CDC reports there is enough smallpox vaccine to inoculate every man, woman and child in the United States should an enemy spray the variola major into the air in an attempt to dominate the country through bioterrorism.  

Although no cure for acute smallpox has ever been found, it was more difficult to transmit than the coronavirus. Having prolonged face-to-face contact with someone who was ill with the virus was one way to contract it. Direct contact with infected bodily fluids on bedding or clothing was another. 

Just as medical researchers once looked for a vaccine to protect people from acquiring this dreaded disease, the current goal of laboratory scientists is to find a vaccine to protect against the novel coronavirus.  

June 30, 1798—Dr. Edward Jenner discovered that cowpox, a harmless relative of the deadly smallpox, could be used to inoculate people against developing smallpox. (It was not until the 1960s that intensive vaccine campaigns guaranteed protection for every American from smallpox.) 

Jan. 1, 1898—It is now mandatory that citizens of Alabama receive the anti-smallpox vaccine, which is both safe and effective. (Historians of local Alabama government have found little evidence that municipalities seriously attempted to enforce the vaccine requirement.) 

May 15, 1897It is rumored that some traveler from Memphis to Jefferson County brought, in addition to his luggage, the deadly smallpox virus. The U.S. Public Health Service discounts this rumor, however, and its leadership believes smallpox was transmitted to Alabama from many different places around the country where there have been outbreaks of the disease.  

June 30, 1897—Quarantine camps have been set up outside of Birmingham to house and care for residents of this metropolis who have been diagnosed with smallpox. Three hundred seventy-five interns have the early stages of smallpox, while 14 unfortunates have it in its more advanced forms. (Later, Camp Evans is established, where persons suspected of having the smallpox virus are detained so they can be examined over a 16-day period. If they do not develop the disease within this period, they are released to return to their homes.) 

July 15, 1897—The incidence of smallpox is reported to have reached epidemic proportions in Birmingham and Jefferson County. The U.S. Public Health Service has gone into these areas to assist local medical personnel in addressing and hopefully eliminating this crisis.  

July 20, 1897—A physician who has studied smallpox as part of his medical education says the smallpox patient suffers the most when his rash spreads from his face to his arms, legs, hands and feet. Within a matter of hours, the patient’s whole body is covered with a rash. The rash soon becomes bumps, and the bumps take the form of pustules. The pustules form a crust and then a scab. The victim experiences severe abdominal pain and enters a state of delirium.  

July 24, 1897—Joe R. Swan, age 61, died of an advanced case of smallpox at his home here in Hartselle today. Mr. Swan is survived by his wife, Esther J. Swan, and their three children, Rebecca G. Thacker, Josie Swan and Zachariah Swan. Mr. Swan will be laid to rest in the Cedar Creek Free Will Baptist Church Cemetery south of Hartselle. 

Aug. 17, 1897Since the discovery of the first case of smallpox here in Hartselle, many hundreds of people have been voluntarily vaccinated, and the entire local medical force has been busy at it for several days. Drs. S.L. Rountree and H.C. McRee have also investigated a second case reported locally and pronounced it genuine smallpox.