The eccentric engineer

A fascinating insight into humankind's age-long battle with smallpox.

We're very good at making things go extinct - dodos being perhaps our most famous victim, although contrary to popular belief, we didn't eat them to oblivion, in fact they tasted horrible. But this loss was, at least in our modern minds, an 'accident', and we didn't mean it to happen. But what about deliberately engineering an extinction?

Alarming as this might sound, we have made one concerted effort to eliminate an entire species, and the story of how that went is perhaps a cautionary tale for our time.

But why would be want to make a species extinct? Because it's an even bigger killer than us. Since its emergence in Africa some 10,000 years ago, smallpox has killed more people than all wars in history put together. The smallpox virus - Variola - only lives in humans, spread by airborne droplets or concealed on the bodies and clothes of victims, particularly in the thousands of burning, sore scabs that erupt on the skin.

Within days of the scabs appearing, there is profuse internal bleeding, vomiting of blood, and the sloughing of large pieces of dead skin. Those that survived never catch the disease again, but then roughly half of those who catch it don't survive. Within a fortnight, they're dead.

Humans are, of course, resourceful creatures, and it wasn't long before we realised that it would be useful to have a killer like this on our side. So engineering Variola as a bio-weapon began surprisingly early, in the 12th century, when the Mongols catapulted infected corpses into besieged cities.

In the New World, the disease, spread on infected blankets, was more feared than the conquistadors - a fact used by the invaders to their advantage. The problem was, no one knew exactly how smallpox was spread, how it killed and how to prevent it, making it a rather unreliable ally.

It was the British physician Edward Jenner who made the breakthrough when he noticed in 1790 that milkmaids, infected with the non-lethal but related cowpox, developed a complete immunity to smallpox and this led to his discovery of vaccination - the word coming from the Latin for cow, 'vacca'. Even before that, the Chinese had for some time been using quills to blow dried smallpox scabs up the nose in an attempt to inoculate its citizens, with some, if not complete, success.

But Jenner's vaccination system was perhaps the first time in history that science had made a major impact on one of mankind's greatest adversaries. Sadly, his idea was slow to catch on. Despite the willingness of many nobles, including Catherine the Great of Russia, to be vaccinated, his cure could not be produced in large enough quantities to inoculate the entire population of Britain, let alone the world. So the steady, deadly spread of smallpox continued through the 19th century and into the 20th century when it was still killing two million people worldwide a year.

What should have finally put an end to its reign of terror came in 1966, not in the form of a sudden scientific advance, but simply as a resolution. That year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) decided to eradicate smallpox from the face of the Earth. There followed a massive investigation in which teams of scientists scoured the planet for outbreaks of the disease, inoculated millions of people who were in danger of infection, and finally brought the virus to its knees.

The last known case of smallpox in the wild was located in Somalia on 26 October, 1977. The victim survived.

Indestructible

But this was not quite the end of the road for smallpox. Although eradicated in the wild, the virus did still exist, frozen, in a few laboratories.  In 1978, when Variola made its final bid for freedom, these numbered four.

Janet Parker was a medical photographer working above a smallpox laboratory in Birmingham in the West Midlands when she contracted the disease. How the virus escaped has still never been explained, but in the ensuing panic over 300 people who might have had contact with her were inoculated. Only one, her mother, contracted the disease and she survived. Janet was not so lucky. She remains the last known victim of smallpox. Several days after her death, the director of the laboratory responsible committed suicide.

This tragedy finally brought smallpox to the condemned cell. Remaining stocks of the virus were moved to two facilities in the USA and Russia. From there, the WHO decided to take the last step and destroy the disease entirely.

It was a momentous decision as it would be the first time in history that mankind had deliberately made a species extinct. By a unanimous vote, the committee decided that on 30 June, 1993 the remaining vials of smallpox would be placed simultaneously in autoclaves in the US and Russia and heated to 248°Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. The dead and denatured viruses would then be incinerated.

But at the last minute we baulked. What might we lose if we destroyed a natural organism entirely? Might it be useful to the military? Or bio-engineers? Or medical researchers? Execution was postponed and the only engineered extinction put off, indefinitely.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them

Close