Smallpox, unlike the Minié ball, was an indiscriminate, equal-opportunity killer that killed about 30% of those it infected. Although there was no cure, English physician Edward Jenner had devised a vaccine of sorts. He noticed that milkmaids often contracted cowpox, which resembled smallpox but was much less virulent, and were thereafter immune to smallpox. He then began deliberately infecting people with cowpox.
Control of this early pandemic was imperative for both armies in the Civil War. By the beginning of the war both sides required immunization to it.
Now, thanks to an analysis of American Civil War-era vaccination kits, scientists have traced the origins of the virus strains used during some of the earliest smallpox vaccination efforts in the United States, according to a study published Monday in the journal Genome Biology.
For the study, an international team of researchers captured viral molecules from biological material, including blisters and pus, left on blades, tin boxes and glass slides found inside the aging leather vaccination kits housed at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.
Analysis of the molecules revealed the genomes of virus fragments, allowing scientists to identify the strain used to vaccinate Civil War soldiers against smallpox.
Follow the link for a photo of a period “vaccination” kit.
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