Smallpox used to be one of the most devastating diseases in existence, killing at least a third of those it infected.
The origin of the disease is uncertain, but it is believed to have originated thousands of years ago in Africa, then spreading to India and China. The earliest physical evidence of smallpox is the pustular rash on the mummified body of Pharaoh Ramesses V of Egypt, who died in 1157 BC.
Called ‘smallpox’ by the English to distinguish it from the ‘Great Pox’, syphilis, it was also known as the ‘speckled monster’ because of the painful rash that spread over the skin of sufferers.
The first symptoms of the disease appear two weeks after infection. During this incubation period, sufferers look and feel healthy and are not contagious. Then follows a sudden onset of flu-like symptoms including fever, headaches, back pain and sometimes vomiting, diarrhoea or both. A few days later, flat, red spots appear on the skin. Within a day or two, many of these lesions turn into small blisters filled with clear fluid, which then turn into pus. Scabs begin to form eight to nine days later and eventually fall off, leaving deep, pitted scars.
Those that survive carry the legacy of smallpox for life. It can leave the sufferer blind and almost all are disfigured by scars. The ravaged, pock-marked faces of survivors would have been a familiar sight for Dr Richard Mead.
Due to the growing use of dissection as part of medical training, most doctors in eighteenth-century Britain had some practical knowledge of the human body. However, successfully treating disease was rather more hit and miss. Smallpox was easily identifiable by the distinctive rash it produced, but once it was diagnosed there was little that could be done.
Doctors and apothecaries would prescribe an array of potions, powders and elixirs. These could include what was referred to as animal materia medica. Sir Hans Sloane, a contemporary physician and friend of Mead, regularly prescribed woodlice, crabs’ eyes and oil of scorpion. This was not uncommon at the time, and such treatments were not excluded from the Royal College of Physician’s Pharmacopoeia until 1788.
Many treatments, such as bleeding or purging, or the use of laxatives or medicines to provoke vomiting, in fact tended to make patients worse.
The Generous Georgian: Dr Richard Mead includes a number of objects which shed light on Mead’s battles with smallpox, from his A discourse on the small pox and measles of 1748 to a portrait of Mead’s fierce rival the Gresham Professor of Physic, John Woodward.
My next post will look at inoculation, and the active role that Dr Mead played in it becoming an accepted and beneficial practice in England.