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The Search for the Smallpox Vaccine

by Albert Marrin

Age Range: 10 & up

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-525-46922-2
Publisher: Dutton

A compelling twin biography of both Edward Jenner, inventor of the vaccine for smallpox, and of the disease itself. Opening with a graphic description of the ravages of the 1521 smallpox outbreak that toppled the Aztec Empire when Cortés invaded Mexico, the narrative then plumbs the beginnings of the disease in humans, the biology of viruses, and explores the sociocultural impact of smallpox. A discussion of various early methodologies of immunization leads directly into the life and work of the unassuming country surgeon who, in the late–18th century, doggedly pursued a safe and effective means of preventing the disease that regularly visited misery upon the Old World and virtually wiped out whole populations of indigenous peoples in the New. Jenner emerges as a likable and decent man, and a dedicated physician, one whose flexibility of thought and willingness to experiment recognized the immunological ramifications of the fact that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox never seemed to contract smallpox. Marrin (Secrets from the Rocks, p. 339, etc.) ably weaves in the scientific, religious, social, and cultural forces at work in Jenner’s day without ever muddying his main story line. He then brings the story of smallpox right into the present, detailing the eradication of smallpox by the WHO and then discussing its potential impact as a terrorist weapon in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Primary source material is quoted liberally in the text, and although authorship is occasionally indicated when introducing an excerpt, there is no real link between these quotations and the lengthy bibliography and somewhat less lengthy Webliography at the end. This absence of specific source notes and a somewhat histrionic tendency to refer to smallpox as “the Speckled Monster” weaken the whole a bit, but it remains a readable and compelling offering, and presents a nicely detailed companion to Giblin’s When Plague Strikes (1995). (Nonfiction. 10+)