The WHO Declares Smallpox Eradicated


In September 11, 1978, in Birmingham, England, a woman named Janet Parker died from a disease she had apparently caught at work. She was a photographer at the University of Birmingham who worked directly above the university’s microbiology lab where the smallpox virus was being studied.

Janet would turn out to be the last person ever to die from that virus.

At the end of 1979, an international group of scientists announced that smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases ever known, had been eradicated.

In May 1980, at the 33rd World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization (WHO) made it official.

A Brief History of Smallpox

Smallpox was caused by the variola virus. It was one of humanity’s most-feared diseases. It was nightmarishly disfiguring, and it killed 3 out of 10 people who contracted it.

Most of those who survived it were left severely scarred, and many were blinded.

The smallpox virus has been known since ancient times. In the 3rd century BC, smallpox blisters were found on 3 Egyptian mummies, one of whom was Pharaoh Ramses V.

Pocahontas, King Louis XV of France, and Queen Mary II of England are all said to have died from the virus. Queen Elizabeth I also had the disease. She recovered but with major scarring.

American presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln all had smallpox and survived it.

Russian leader Joseph Stalin had it as a child. It left him scarred and deformed.

Various inoculation methods had been tried over the centuries, but it took a global effort to get the job done.


As long ago as the 1500s, people realized that once a person had survived smallpox, they never contracted it again. This led to the trialing of various methods to inoculate against the virus.

The Chinese would grind up smallpox scabs and insert them into the nostrils. In Turkey, pus from the blisters was scraped into the skin. These methods were called variolation, after the virus name variola.

During the American Revolution, smallpox was decimating the American soldiers. George Washington (who had had the disease himself as a teenager) ordered the first mass military inoculation, in this case by variolation through the skin.

His unauthorized decision prevented many soldiers from dying from the disease and may have changed the direction of the war, according to some historians.

Both early inoculation methods were risky for the individual, however. Though many people were saved by these measures, others died from what was meant to be a mild case of smallpox contracted from inoculation.


In the 18th century, 400,000 died of smallpox every year. Of those who recovered, one-third were left blind. 

By the end of the century, Englishman Dr. Edward Jenner discovered that dairymaids who were infected with cowpox, a virus similar to variola that only infected cattle, did not contract smallpox.

He used samples of cowpox lesions to create what he called a vaccine. The word vaccination is derived from the Latin word “vacca,” meaning cow.

Dr. Jenner’s vaccine turned out to be much safer than the earlier methods of inoculation.

Last US Outbreak

The last smallpox outbreak in the United States was in 1949 in New York City. Because smallpox had become less common in North America by this time, only 25% of New Yorkers had been vaccinated.

The city mobilized quickly. Within a few short weeks, the majority of citizens had received vaccinations. Deaths were limited to 12 people.

In the US, schoolchildren and military personnel as well as many travelers began to be vaccinated for smallpox. Timing varied because vaccination regulations were made at the state level.

In 1972, the WHO stopped the vaccination program in the United States. The disease was considered eradicated there.

The Global Initiative

In 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) began a comprehensive program to completely eradicate smallpox by 1966.  At that time, smallpox was killing two to three million people every year.

A lack of commitment from some countries as well as a lack of resources made that goal impossible to reach. In 1967, WHO launched an Intensified Eradication Program, this time with greater international collaboration.

The United States was the largest donor and committed financial and technical resources to the program. Efforts were focused on all countries that still suffered outbreaks.

In 1973, five countries still reported cases. Surveillance, vaccination, and containment efforts continued in those countries until there were no remaining cases.

Last Cases Worldwide

The last naturally occurring smallpox outbreaks all occurred in Asia and Africa.

In 1975 in Bangladesh, a 3-year-old girl, Rahima Banu, became the last person in the world to have the major form of the virus (variola major). She survived.

In 1977, a Somalian named Ali Maow Maalin became the last person on earth to be infected with the minor form of the virus (variola minor) naturally. He also survived.

The last case in the US was the laboratory accident suffered by Janet Parker in 1978. Her mother also caught the virus but recovered.

In 1980, two years after the last case was contained, vaccinations were stopped worldwide and smallpox was pronounced dead.

The WHO estimates that in total, smallpox was responsible for about 300-500 million deaths before its eradication.

First But Not Last

Smallpox is the first human disease to be successfully eradicated. To this day, it remains the only example.

Hopefully, however, it won’t be the last. A similar global effort, The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, was launched in 1988.

The initiative has contained poliomyelitis to 7 countries, all in Asia and Africa. There were 138 cases reported in 2018.

A Stunning Cooperative Achievement

The WHO called the fight to defeat smallpox “one of the most successful collaborative public health initiatives in history.”

It remains a remarkable example of what humans can accomplish when we commit to working together.


George Washington and Smallpox – Lessons in Leadership –