Library Treasures: Dover on Sydenham’s Smallpox Treatment

Dover's Title Page, The College of Physicians of PhiladelphiaIn anticipation of the launch of the full History of Vaccines website on September 29, we offer here an excerpt from our collection of smallpox information.

Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), a noted English doctor, had observed that the rich seemed to have a higher mortality rate from smallpox than the poor. This led him to conclude that contemporary medical treatments, largely inaccessible to the poor, might be more harmful than helpful in mild smallpox cases. And yet, the care he provided his own patients was quite elaborate. Thomas Dover, a patient of Sydenham and a future doctor, documented his treatment at Sydenham’s hands for a serious case of smallpox. Below is Dover’s description; it is likely that the year is 1684:

“Whilst I lived in Dr Sydenham’s house, I had myself the Small Pox, and fell ill on the Twelfth Day. In the beginning I lost twenty two Ounces of Blood [from bloodletting]. He gave me a Vomit, but I find by Experience Purging much better. I went abroad, by his Direction, till I was blind, and then took to my Bed. I had no Fire allowed in my Room, my Windows were constantly open, my Bed-Clothes were ordered to be laid no higher than my Waste. He made me take twelve Bottles of Small Beer, acidulated with Spirit of Vitriol, every twenty Four hours. I had of this Anomalous Kind [of smallpox] to a very great Degree, yet never lost my Senses one Moment.” — Thomas Dover, The Ancient Physician’s Legacy to His Country


The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Dover T. The Ancient Physician’s Legacy to His Country, 6th ed. London: Henry Kent, 1762.