Christian Chauret

Public Domain

Exactly 300 years ago, in 1721, Benjamin Franklin and his fellow American colonists faced a deadly smallpox outbreak. Their varying responses constitute an eerily prescient object lesson for today's world, similarly devastated by a virus and divided over vaccination three centuries later.

As a microbiologist and a Franklin scholar, we see some parallels between then and now that could help governments, journalists and the rest of us cope with the coronavirus pandemic and future threats.

Smallpox strikes Boston

Smallpox was nothing new in 1721. Known to have affected people for at least 3,000 years, it ran rampant in Boston, eventually striking more than half the city's population. The virus killed about 1 in 13 residents – but the death toll was probably more, since the lack of sophisticated epidemiology made it impossible to identify the cause of all deaths.

What was new, at least to Boston, was a simple procedure that could protect people from the disease. It was known as "variolation" or "inoculation," and involved deliberately exposing someone to the smallpox "matter" from a victim's scabs or pus, injecting the material into the skin using a needle. This approach typically caused a mild disease and induced a state of "immunity" against smallpox.

Even today, the exact mechanism is poorly understood and not much research on variolation has been done. Inoculation through the skin seems to activate an immune response that leads to milder symptoms and less transmission, possibly because of the route of infection and the lower dose. Since it relies on activating the immune response with live smallpox variola virus, inoculation is different from the modern vaccination that eradicated smallpox using the much less harmful but related vaccinia virus.

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