If you were born prior to the 1970s, chances are you belong to an exclusive club known as the “Round Scar Generation”. Most likely, there is a round scar on your upper left arm that came as a result of being punctured with an oversized needle in hopes of keeping you from catching small pox.
You may not realize it, but your sacrifice of having a scarred arm for the remainder of your days enabled humanity to rid itself from this dreaded disease that claimed the lives of 30% of those it infected.
The disease had plagued humanity for millennia, initially causing symptoms similar to the flu, however, these symptoms would quickly be followed by small reddish spots called on the mouth, tongue, palate, and throat. Soon, the disease would attack the skin cells of a person, causing massive boils to develop on the body. Historically, smallpox has an overall fatality rate of about 30 percent.
So dreaded was this disease that finding a cure for it was a top priority for most of the world’s healers.
Interestingly, the small pox vaccine predates the settlement of Jamestown by more than seven hundred years, as documentation reveals that the Chinese had developed an effective method of inoculating against the deadly disease prior to the year 1000 AD.
By the 1700s, doctors in Turkey had developed an effective small pox vaccination and in 1718 the Britain’s ambassador to the Turkish court had his five-year-old son vaccinated at the order of his wife, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.
Mrs. Montagu became a proponent of small pox vaccinations and later introduced the practice to England, writing an expose on small pox vaccinations:
“The small-pox so fatal and so general amongst us is here entirely harmless by the invention of ingrafting (which is the term they give it). There is a set of old women who make it their business to perform the operation. Every autumn in the month of September, when the great heat is abated, people send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox. They make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nutshell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much venom as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell, and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day and are in perfect health till the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark, and in eight days time they are as well as before the illness. . . . There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am very well satisfied of the safety of the experiment since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England, and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind…”
In the centuries ahead, the basic premise of vaccinating against small pox did not change and in the 1960s American scientists had invented a bifurcated needle in order to scratch the skin of patients.
The new needle made it possible to easily and effectively inoculate patients with the vaccine and soon an entire generation had a small scar on their upper arms evidencing their receipt of the vaccine.
The sacrifice paid of and in 1980 the World Health Organization certified the global eradication of the disease.
If you’re from the round scar generation, thank you. Today, your grandchildren have no fear of catching one of the worst diseases known to man because of a simple act you took roughly a half-century ago.