The horrifying story of the last death by smallpox

Smallpox has been around for a millennium, and claimed hundreds of millions of lives. Each death was tragic, but the last person to die by smallpox left behind one of the most wrenching tragedies of them all.

Smallpox was one of the most feared killers the world over. Those it didn't kill it often blinded or left sickened for life. It was also one of the most celebrated triumphs of any international medical effort. In 1959, the World Health Assembly officially announced a drive to eradicate smallpox. In 1977, Ali Maow Maalin, a hospital cook in Somalia, became the last person get a natural case of smallpox. The world waited for the official announcement of its eradication. A year later, another case was reported.

Janet Parker was a medical photographer who worked at the University of Birmingham medical school. From the moment she was diagnosed, there was no question where she got the virus. She worked directly above a laboratory studying smallpox. The lab, headed by Professor Henry Bedson was winding down its research. Bedson was caught between competing demands. He believed he was on the verge of a breakthrough in smallpox research, and the World Health Organization believed him. It believed him enough to send him samples of the virus. It, however, couldn't keep sending him samples of the virus because his lab didn't meet safety requirements, and no one was willing to put up the money to make the improvements in his lab for a virus that was all-but-eradicated. As a result, the researchers in the lab worked on an airborne virus without air locks and without separate showers or changing facilities, and without special clothing in the lab to prevent contamination. Because Bedson knew his time was running out, they also handled the virus in the main lab, away from safety cabinets.

The horrifying story of the last death by smallpox

The researchers in the lab, however, kept current on their vaccinations. The smallpox vaccine requires renewing every few years. Janet Parker hadn't had a vaccination in twelve years. In the investigation, after she was diagnosed, no one could determine exactly how the virus got into the air system, but once it had it traveled up the vents into her work space.

At first she thought she had a cold. Then doctors thought it was a drug rash. Then the pustules started appearing. Janet was treated and her parents, with whom she had had contact, were quarantined. The first person to die was Henry Bedson. While his wife was distracted, he went into his garden and cut his throat. A few days later, Janet Parker's father died of a heart attack. The stress and worry of the ordeal killed him. Janet herself eventually succumbed to smallpox. Her mother was diagnosed with smallpox, but was treated and survived the illness.

Today, people who want to eradicate the last strains of smallpox - all housed in labs - point to Janet Parker as an example of how a virus can escape a lab. After the tragedy, health guidelines and monitoring for labs receiving these kinds of illnesses grew more stringent.

[Via BBC, Birmingham Mail, Lawrence Journal-World]