The Smallpox Vaccine & the Ottomans: What's the Connection?
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How the Ottomans Inspired the Smallpox Vaccine

Created : 24 Sep 2022
smallpox vaccine

By Justin Mays:

When it comes to vaccines for life-threatening diseases, we cannot ignore the Ottoman contribution to eradicating smallpox. Smallpox was a disease that spread during the 18th century and caused countless deaths. Those that were suffering from it developed bumps all over their bodies. These pus-filled bumps weren't just severely painful but left the sick with various other health issues.  

 The Smallpox Vaccine & The Monkeypox Outbreak: What's the Connection?

Although smallpox was eradicated in 1979, much talk has surrounded the vaccine, which has been in high demand due to monkeypox outbreaks worldwide. Because of the similarity between the two diseases, the smallpox vaccine has an 85% success rate in preventing monkeypox outbreaks. But did you know that the Ottomans were the ones who discovered this method of inoculation?

 The Ottoman's Contribution to Fighting Smallpox

One of the best books to read for those interested in the inner working of the Ottoman court is the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Montagu, the British Ambassador to Istanbul's wife, meticulously recorded and shared her observations with people back in England through her letters, which provided great insight to people then and today's historians. In 1717 she wrote a letter back home to England explaining how the Ottomans were applying breakthrough methods against smallpox.

 How Did the Ottomans Help with Immunity Against Smallpox?

While the west referred to this highly contagious disease as the "Speckled Monster" as it took the lives of millions, the Ottomans took a slightly different approach.

The Ottomans discovered that if you applied smallpox scabs or fluids to healthy people via minor cuts on the skin, they would develop a mild version of the disease to a much lesser extent than being exposed to it naturally, thus making them immune to the illness. This deliberate exposure, called variolation, prevented many deaths and helped Western doctors who would later receive credit for the discovery.

 Did People Accept This Practice?

When Lady Montagu wrote about the practice to her friend, variolation became more accepted in Europe. The practice was met with skepticism. It was initially reserved for the brave or those who were promised something in exchange for being the first to test it out. Despite it being a new practice in Europe in the 1700s, the origins may have even preceded the Ottomans, although it is debatable. 

There are historical records of similar practices in China and India. Still, it is unclear if the knowledge of variolation was spread throughout the silk road trade routes and landed in the Ottoman Empire or had its origins in spots other than the Ottoman Empire.

The development of vaccines has been one of the significant medical advancements worldwide, resulting in healthier populations. We can thank the medical knowledge of the Ottomans for the advent of vaccines and for a safer place to live together.

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