Victims of Smallpox in History: Senator William Upham

In January 1853, a quick funeral service was held in Washington, DC, followed by a quick interment ceremony. The body belonged to William Upham, the Junior Senator from Vermont. He had been elected to the Senate in 1842 and reelected in 1848. In his time in the Senate, he was an abolitionist, voting against expansion of slavery into new territories and against the Fugitive Slave Act.

While vaccination against smallpox had been introduced in the United States in 1800, Senator Upham was not vaccinated, so he fell victim to one of the periodic epidemics of smallpox that still visited the country in the 1850s. Because of the lack of understanding of smallpox transmission, the authorities elected to quickly bury the bodies of those who died. Because of his stature as a senator, Mr. Upham’s funeral would have been a big event in the capital of the country, something that raised fears of widespread contagion.

Ten days after the funeral, a letter to the editor of The New York Times pointed out the unnecessary steps taken by the authorities to bury the bodies of smallpox victims. The author of the letter further encouraged medical societies to do something to expand the use of vaccines to prevent the deaths from smallpox. Interestingly, the author of the letter signed it as “Medicus,” the pseudonym of a person (or persons) writing letters to the editors of different newspapers, all advocating for medical science. Part of the letter reads:

“We know the circumstance here alluded to in regard to placing of small-pox patients with others, to be strictly accurate; for in Paris there is no hospital appropriated exclusively to persons laboring under that disease. They are received into all the hospitals of that metropolis, and never isolated, but put in beds in the same room with patients with other complaints; no apprehension is felt and apparently no evil consequences are produced by this course. Let us hope for the credit of humanity, that unmanly fear of exaggerated danger may never again, in our country, impede the performance of the sacred and holy duties of nursing and burial, which we owe to one another, and which are Christian obligations that should under no circumstances be disregarded.

Mr. Upham’s case is by no means the only one that could be cited in illustration of the necessity for a change of public opinion in regard to this matter. It has come to the knowledge of the writer that a respectable stranger, sojourning at one of our city hotels, has, within the last three years, been turned out of the house in mid-winter, and while suffering with the worst kind of complaint — small-pox at the height of the eruption. Exposed for several hours to intense cold, and having to go by water to the hospital into which he was received, it can be scarcely surprise to state that he died in a few days — the immediate cause of death being violent inflammation of the air passages, induced, or greatly increased, by the exposure to which he had been subjected.”

You can find that letter to the editor in the archive of the Times and read it in its archives. From the last paragraph:

“Your remarks in regard to the necessity for greater attention being paid to the subject of vaccination are worthy of general attention. It is a matter which is too much neglected; and there is abundant reason to believe that the operation is often performed in an imperfect manner, and that it requires repetition at longer or shorter intervals according to circumstances. Will not the authorities consult with some of our medical societies, and devise means for insuring its regular and proper performance? It should be made obligatory upon all citizens without distinction, to have timely recourse to vaccination.”

The year after Mr. Upham’s passing, Massachusetts enacted the first law on compulsory vaccination. There have been no natural cases of smallpox in the United States — and the world — since the successful vaccination campaign that ended in 1980.

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Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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