The M5 Motorway, EnglandEngland’s M5 motorway is not particularly notable. It wasn’t the country’s first motorway to be built, nor is it the longest—those honours both go to its northerly neighbour, the M6. But it has a hidden importance, as it links the Gloucestershire village of Berkeley to Britain’s second city, Birmingham: the beginning-of-the-end and the end-of-the-end of smallpox. Historically, a full nine score years and two separate Berkeley from Birmingham, but by a curious twist of fate, geographically they are less than sixty-six miles apart—a short drive of just an hour and twenty-three minutes, most of it along the M5.
On 14 May 1796, at his home in Berkeley, the English scientist Edward Jenner inoculated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with material from cowpox blisters on the hand of Sarah Nelmes. A short while later, he challenged him with material from a smallpox patient and found that the boy was protected against the deadly infection.
Ten years later, Thomas Jefferson, founding father of the American Republic, wrote in a prophetic letter to Jenner ‘Future generations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox existed and by you has been extirpated.’ The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was diagnosed in Ali Maow Maalin, a hospital cook in the picturesque seaport of Merca, Somalia, on 26 October 1977.
In August 1978, the smallpox virus crept like a thief in the night from a laboratory in Birmingham to reinhabit human flesh and blood. But, fortunately, more than thirty years on from those last days of smallpox in Birmingham 1978, Jefferson’s dictum is now an established fact: most of the population knows smallpox only from the history books.
In this book, I set out to give an account of the 1978 Birmingham outbreak, drawn from records of the time and the reminiscences of some of those who lived through it. To put that last outbreak in context, I provide an series of additional vignettes from the life of this vanquished virus. Writing for the English-speaking world, I have focused primarily on what happened when this virus repeatedly struck Britain during the twentieth century.
The twenty-first century reader will find the Britain haunted by smallpox both a familiar place, with its school trips and pubs, youth clubs and folk dances, and, at the same time, an unfamiliar place, where there was no Internet, no mobile phones, no DNA sequencing, and no modern immunology or cell biology."
It is easy to look back at the ten years leading up to 1978— the tail end of the sixties and the seventies that followed and—as a decrepit decade, a time of dreary deadlock and a world divided. The assassination of Martin Luther King. The Vietnam War and the Cold War. The Oil Crisis. Industrial discord, frequent power cuts, the three-day week and the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign.
But let’s not forget that this was also a time when Americans sent men to the moon “in peace for all mankind” and celebrated their bicentenary with photos from the surface of Mars. This was a time when cold war adversaries shook hands in space and the first space station orbited our planet. This was a time when humankind sent Voyager probes off on a grand tour of the solar system, turning half-glimpsed smudges in the night sky into newly mapped worlds. This was a time when we humans first began to refashion the genetic legacy of nature to our own ends and laid the foundations of the home recording and computer age. This was a time before the mind virus of neoliberalism infected our politics; when British society stood at a peak of equality unseen before or since. This was a time when we could fly from London to New York on Concorde in three hours, faster than the speed of sound, and arrive before we set off.
And let’s also not forget that this was a time when we took on a microbial adversary that had killed more humans than all the wars in history—and won!
This was a time when we drove a vicious virus out of every ounce of human flesh on the planet.
These were the last days of smallpox!