Target Health Blog

Small Pox Killed Millions Throughout Human History

April 2, 2018

History of Medicine

Edward Jenner (1749-1823) - Graphic credit: Vigneron Pierre Roch (1789-1872) -,, Public Domain,

The scourge of the world! The history of smallpox extends into pre-history; the disease likely emerged in human populations about 10,000 BCE. An estimated 300 to 500 million people died from smallpox in the 20th century alone. This virulent disease, which kills a third of those it infects, is known to have co-existed with human beings for thousands of years. The origin of smallpox is unknown. The earliest evidence of the disease dates back to the 3rd century BCE in Egyptian mummies. The disease historically occurred in outbreaks. In 18th century Europe it is estimated 400,000 people per year died from the disease, and one-third of the cases resulted in blindness. These deaths included those of at least five reigning monarchs. As recently as 1967, 15 million cases occurred a year. 

In 1798, Edward Jenner discovered that vaccinations could prevent smallpox. In 1967, the World Health Organization intensified efforts to eliminate the disease. Smallpox is one of two infectious diseases to have been eradicated, the other being rinderpest in 2011. The term “smallpox“ was first used in Britain in the 15th century to distinguish the disease from syphilis, which was then known as the "great pox". Other historical names for the disease include pox, speckled monster, and red plague. 

The well known (Shakespeare) curse, "A pox on both your houses" would have been a very serious utterance.

One of Many Stories of Smallpox (and True Love in the 19th Century)

Soon after his marriage, the great Irish composer and poet, Thomas Moore (1779-1852), was called away on a business trip. Upon his return he was met at the door, not by beauteous Elizabeth, bride and the love of his life, but by the family doctor. "Your wife is upstairs," said their doctor. "But she asked that you not come up." The physician related the terrible account; Moore learned that; his wife had contracted small pox. The disease had left her once flawless skin pocked and scarred. She had taken one look at her reflection in the mirror and commanded that the shutters be drawn and over them the heavy drapes, and that her husband should never see her again. Moore would not listen. He ran upstairs and threw open the door of his wife's room. It was black as night inside. Not a sound came from the darkness. Groping along the wall, Moore felt for the gas jets. A startled cry came from a black corner of the room. "No! Don't light the lamps!" Moore hesitated, swayed by the pleading in the voice. "Go!" she begged. "Please go! This is the greatest gift I can give you now."

Moore did go. He went down to his study, where he sat up most of the night, passionately writing, what turned out to be one of the greatest love poems ever written; but he also composed a song, to go with his words, a song that lives on, using certain musical phrases of ancient Irish melodies. He had never written a song before, but now it came naturally, motivated by the adoration of his wife and her profound melancholy. The next morning, as soon as the sun was up he returned to his wife's room. In spite of the morning light, her room remained as dark as night. He felt his way to a chair and sat down. "Are you awake?" he asked. "I am," came a voice from the far side of the room. "But you must not ask to see me. You must not press me, Thomas." "I will sing to you, then," he answered. And so, for the first time, Thomas Moore sang to his wife the song that still lives today: 

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,

Which I gaze on so fondly today,

Were to change by tomorrow and flee in my arms,

Like fairy gifts fading away,

Thou wouldst still be adored, as this moment thou art --

Let thy loveliness fade as it will,

Moore heard a movement from the dark corner where his wife lay in her loneliness, waiting.  He continued:

Let thy loveliness fade as it will,

And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart

Would entwine itself verdantly still --

The song ended. As his voice trailed off on the last note, Moore heard his bride rise. She crossed the room to the window, reached up and slowly pulled aside the drapes and drew open the shutters.

Their long marriage was successful with five children, who tragically all died before both parents. Towards the end of his life, Moore suffered from a stroke and was lovingly cared for by his devoted wife, Elizabeth. He died on 26 February 1852. His remains are in a vault at St. Nicholas churchyard, Bromham, within view of his cottage-home.

(Editor's note: as you listen to this loveliness, try not to look at the photos; would not have been our choice)

Here is that same love poem/song:

Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms

Another version of: "Believe Me"

Another version of: "Believe Me"

Final evolution of the music; Harvard University's song, "Fair Harvard." 

The Last Rose of Summer, words and music by Thomas Moore, sung by Renee Fleming. The haunting melody of Moore's, The Last Rose of Summer, was adapted by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Flotow in his opera, Martha.

Dame Joan Sutherland: Last Rose (adapted for the opera, Martha)

Mendelssohn, (adaption) Fantasie Opus #15

Beethoven: (adaptation) e flat; “Sad and luckless was the season.“


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