Smallpox Survivors - Society and Culture - Notable Cases

Notable Cases

Famous historical figures who contracted smallpox include Lakota Chief Sitting Bull, Ramses V of Egypt, the Kangxi Emperor (survived), Shunzhi Emperor and Tongzhi Emperor (refer to the official history) of China, Date Masamune of Japan (who lost an eye to the disease). Cuitláhuac, the 10th tlatoani (ruler) of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, died of smallpox in 1520, shortly after its introduction to the Americas, and the Incan emperor Huayna Capac died of it in 1527. More recent public figures include Guru Har Krishan, 8th Guru of the Sikhs, in 1664, Peter II of Russia in 1730 (died), George Washington (survived), king Louis XV in 1774 (died) and Maximilian III Joseph, Elector of Bavaria in 1777.

Prominent families throughout the world often had several people infected by and/or perish from the disease. For example, several relatives of Henry VIII survived the disease but were scarred by it. These include his sister Margaret, Queen of Scotland, his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and his two daughters: Mary I of England in 1527 and Elizabeth I of England in 1562 (as an adult she would often try to disguise the pockmarks with heavy makeup). His great-niece, Mary, Queen of Scots, contracted the disease as a child but had no visible scarring.

In Europe, deaths from smallpox often changed dynastic succession. The only surviving son of Henry VIII, Edward VI, died from complications shortly after apparently recovering from the disease, thereby nullifying Henry's efforts to ensure a male successor to the throne (his immediate successors were all females). Louis XV of France succeeded his great-grandfather Louis XIV through a series of deaths of smallpox or measles among those earlier in the succession line. He himself died of the disease in 1774. William III lost his mother to the disease when he was only ten years old in 1660, and named his uncle Charles as legal guardian: her death from smallpox would indirectly spark a chain of events that would eventually lead to the permanent ousting of the Stuart line from the British throne. William III's wife, Mary II of England, died from smallpox as well.

In Russia, Peter II of Russia died of the disease at 15 years of age. Also, prior to becoming Russian Emperor, Peter III caught the virus and suffered greatly from it. He was left scarred and disfigured. His wife, Catherine the Great, was spared but fear of the virus clearly had its effects on her. She feared for her son and heir Pavel's safety so much that she made sure that large crowds were kept at bay and sought to isolate him. Eventually, she decided to have herself inoculated by a Scottish doctor, Thomas Dimsdale. While this was considered a controversial method at the time, she succeeded. Her son Pavel was later inoculated as well. Catherine then sought to have inoculations throughout her empire stating: "My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger." By 1800, approximately 2 million inoculations were administered in the Russian Empire.

In China, the Qing Dynasty had extensive protocols to protect Manchus from Peking's endemic smallpox.

U.S. Presidents George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln all contracted and recovered from the disease. Washington became infected with smallpox on a visit to Barbados in 1751. Jackson developed the illness after being taken prisoner by the British during the American Revolution, and though he recovered, his brother Robert did not. Lincoln contracted the disease during his Presidency, possibly from his son Tad, and was quarantined shortly after giving the Gettysburg address in 1863.

Famous theologian Jonathan Edwards died of smallpox in 1758 following an inoculation.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin fell ill with smallpox at the age of seven. His face was badly scarred by the disease. He later had photographs retouched to make his pockmarks less apparent.

Hungarian poet Ferenc Kölcsey, who wrote the Hungarian national anthem, lost his right eye to smallpox.

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