Smallpox killed an estimated 60 million Europeans, including five reigning European monarchs, in the 18th century alone. Up to 30% of those infected, including 80% of the children under 5 years of age, died from the disease, and one third of the survivors became blind.
Inoculation of the live smallpox virus was introduced in Perthshire in the 1770s. This rather scary procedure was claimed to reduce mortality from the disease and account for the rapid population increase around this period. Deborah Brunton's comprehensive review would suggest that both of these claims are questionable . Vaccination with the cowpox virus, pioneered by Jenner, was introduced 30 years later and eventually permitted the worldwide eradication of the disease.
It is inconcevable that the Fishers never suffered the ravages of smallpox but the total absence of registration of deaths prior to 1855 makes it difficult to name its victims.
There are few references to smallpox in the Breadalbane munuments but in December 1796 John MacArthur, tenant in Balmacnaughton, petitioned the Earl of Breadalbane explaining that he had offered his elder son as a recruit but he was turned down as much undersize. His younger son, deprived of his eyesight by smallpox, had been taught to play the violin in default of other trade, 'but has not yet acquired that proficiency necessary for his being much employed except by the neighbours who when they have occasion to take him more through charity than otherwise'. Wished to maintain his position, enabling his blind son to move around at pleasure (GD122/11/4/3/24).
By 1855, when statutory registration of deaths was in place, vaccination had largely eradicated smallpox in the UK. To date I have found only one of our family that died of smallpox and he was a distant relative. His death certificate states that he died in 1872 of 'variola confluens'.
- Deborah Brunton: Smallpox inoculation and demographic trends in eighteenth-century Scotland
- A M Behbehani: The smallpox story: life and death of an old disease
- Stefan Riedel: Edward Jenner and the history of smallpox and vaccination
- BBC history: Edward Jenner
Page last updated - 28/6/13