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Smallpox and its devastating impact

Smallpox was a devastating disease. Final figures showed that, on average, three out of every 10 people that had the disease died. Those who didn’t survive were often left with severe scarring.

The origin of smallpox is still unknown, but a smallpox-like rash found on three ancient Egyptian mummies has led many to speculate that it can be traced back to the third century Before Common Era (BCE). From here, the earliest written description of any disease that remotely resembles smallpox appeared in China in the fourth century Common Era (CE), with it later documented in India in the seventh century and in Asia Minor during the 10th century.

Australia has its own fatal history with smallpox. The disease first appeared in Australia in April 1789, roughly 15 months after the First Fleet arrived. Fortunately for the British colonisers, the outbreak did not affect them as a majority of the members of the fleet had been exposed to the disease during their infancy. Conversely, the disease was discovered in the country when it manifested itself within members of the Aboriginal communities living in Sydney Cove. Due to the lack of exposure to the disease among these communities, smallpox took the lives of up to 70 per cent of the Indigenous population living in New South Wales at the time.

Although the timing coincides with the arrival of British colonists, there are several arguments that suggest the First Fleet was not responsible for spreading smallpox in Australia. Some historians and academics argue that the Sydney outbreak was actually caused by people from the district of Makassar on the island of Sulawesi (now Indonesia) – roughly 5000 kilometres away. During the 18th century, Makassans had temporary camps along Australia’s northern coastline while they would fish for sea cucumbers for the Chinese market.

The National Museum of Australia suggests that a more likely source of smallpox in Australia was the smallpox sample that surgeon John White brought with him on the First Fleet for the purpose of variolating children born in the new settlement. Nobody knows how White’s sample could have infected local tribes.

The last smallpox case in Australia was identified during World War I, and from 1958–1977 a worldwide vaccination campaign was conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO). In 1977, WHO announced that smallpox had officially been eradicated in what would be heralded as one of the greatest public health achievements in history.

Image (C) National Museum of Australia

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