Between roughly A.D. 250-271, a series of deadly epidemics swept through the Roman Empire – Egypt. The so-called Plague of Cyprian claimed approximately 25 percent of those living in the Roman Empire, which included Egypt at the time, As many as 5,000 victims died each day in Rome alone.
Saint Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage (in Tunisia), wrote extensively of the plague’s horrific effects on its victims, and claimed that the disease signaled the end of the world. Cyprian wrote a detailed description of the progress of the disease in “De mortalitate:”
“The bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces (an area of the mouth).” Cyprian added that the intestines “are shaken with a continual vomiting, the eyes are on fire with the injected blood,” and that in some instances, “the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction.”
Researchers believe the disease described by Cyprian was smallpox which is caused by the Variola major or minor viruses. The disease has been around for over 10.000 years. As in the picture, the victim is initially covered in a rash which becomes fluid-filled blisters. About 20-65% of the people who caught the disease died, but it was especially lethal among children. Those who survived were often badly scarred – especially on the face, were blinded, and their limbs might be deformed.
In 1967 the World Health Organization identified as many as fifteen million victims a year with two million dying from the disease. After vaccination campaigns for two centuries, smallpox was eradicated in 1979.
Tomorrow, More about Cyprian and the Plague
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Despite his skepticism of many medical treatments, Jefferson was an early advocate of smallpox inoculation. Smallpox epidemics caused many deaths in the American colonies. However, in 1766 at age twenty-three, Jefferson made a special visit to Philadelphia in order to be inoculated for smallpox. In later years, he would have his daughters, grandchildren, and slaves inoculated as well.
In later years, Jefferson penned a note to Dr. Edward Jenner, who developed the small pox vaccine.
Letter from Jefferson To Dr. Edward Jenner,Monticello, May 14, 1806
SIR, — I have received a copy of the evidence at large respecting the discovery of the vaccine inoculation which you have been pleased to send me, and for which I return you my thanks. Having been among the early converts, in this part of the globe, to its efficiency, I took an early part in recommending it to my countrymen. I avail myself of this occasion of rendering you a portion of the tribute of gratitude due to you from the whole human family. Medicine has never before produced any single improvement of such utility. Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood was a beautiful addition to our knowledge of the animal economy, but on a review of the practice of medicine before and since that epoch, I do not see any great amelioration which has been derived from that discovery. You have erased from the calendar of human afflictions one of its greatest. Yours is the comfortable reflection that mankind can never forget that you have lived. Future nations will know by history only that the loathsome small-pox has existed and by you has been extirpated.
Accept my fervent wishes for your health and happiness and assurances of the greatest respect and consideration.
Tomorrow: Jefferson on Guns Rita Bay