Yesterday I had the pleasure of working with the College’s new group of Karabots Junior Fellows. The Karabots Junior Fellows Program uses the resources of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia to provide practical assistance, mentoring, and academic and social support to a select group of Philadelphia high school students from communities under-represented in current healthcare professions. This three-year program is designed to facilitate their continuation into post-secondary education required for a career in health care. A new cohort of rising tenth-grade students arrived a few weeks ago for a summer intensive program before the afterschool program begins in September. They’ve been learning about skin as a focus of all their activities, and have explored body modifications including tattooing and piercing, as well as the subject of amputation, especially in relation to our upcoming Mütter Museum Civil War medicine exhibit.
Since skin and appearance have been their focus, I decided to talk with them about smallpox. Most people who survived smallpox were left with some degree of facial scarring. In the smallpox chapter of Plotkin’s Vaccines, the authors write that 65% to 80% of people who recovered from smallpox infection had persistent scarring for life. We talked about the propensity of smallpox to cause significant vesicle development on the face and other extremities: according to Vaccines, “lesions are more extensive on the face and extremities, perhaps because the virus grows more readily at temperatures slightly below 37 degrees.” (Good question from the students: “Wouldn’t it make sense to cover everyone up from head to foot to raise the temperature of their face and limbs?”)
Next we discussed the variety of means that well-to-do Europeans used to hide facial scarring from smallpox: women might have worn veils, as Lady Mary Montagu was said to have done, or applied heavy makeup or even elaborate beauty marks to cover their worst scars. This picture, from the Mütter Museum’s collection, shows the extent of tissue loss that could follow smallpox infection.
After a discussion of the practice of variolation and the development of smallpox vaccination, the students spent some time on this website and played our game Illsville. I’m looking forward to spending more time with these bright teenagers over the next two years.