The Role of Smallpox Vaccination in Mortality Decline in the Great Britain through Eradicating the Disease

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The Role of Smallpox Vaccination in Mortality Decline in the Great Britain through Eradicating the Disease

The Role of Smallpox Vaccination in Mortality Decline in the Great Britain through Eradicating the Disease between XVIII-XX centuries – Facts or a Political Arithmetick?”

Mamurjon Rahimov

University of Illinois at Chicago

Department of Economics

 “Whoever would understand the political phenomenon known as ‘The Anti-Vaccination Agitation”- and its magnitude would seem to indicate it as being at least worth understanding – must remember some one or two facts, facts obvious enough indeed, but constantly forgotten.  And chief amongst them this, that every opponent of the practice, every skeptic, without exception, as to its benefits, has in the first instance approached the question in a spirit at least of impartiality, and probably all his prejudices strongly in its favor”

Alfred Milnes


In October of 1979, The World Health Organization (WHO), officially declared smallpox, also known as variola, eradicated.  The disease that was known to mankind as early as 1122 BC in China, took millions of lives throughout the world (  We all know that WHO is a branch of the United Nations Organization, and is dedicated to protect the health of the mankind.  However, UN also has many other branches dealing with issues like business, economy, culture, education, migration, to name a few, and furthermore, the eradication of smallpox is believed to be a collaborative achievement of most of these branches, both on local and on global level.  If so, this eradication must have been announced jointly with, if not all, then at least few other UN branches such as World Bank, UNDP, and UNICEF.   It would be very unfair for medical men to appropriate this great achievement of mankind all to themselves.  Although medical men do not like to mention it too much, they all recognize that eradication of smallpox was not only their merit.

Economic history has contributed significantly to the formulation of various economic theories.  Among the economists who have found history to be an important source for their ideas one can cite Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, Robert Solow, and Gary Becker.  For economists it is very important to study population history in order to come up with policies that decrease mortality and morbidity of the population.  Factors like life expectancy, infant mortality are considered to be key indicators of progress in any country.  Longer life expectancy means more manpower to move the industry, larger consumer base for products and services. 

My purpose here is to elaborate in theoretical and statistical plausibility of smallpox vaccination eradicating the disease based on papers written about the smallpox disease, and to seek whether the vaccination, if efficient at all, weighed substantially in the light of other forces that caused decline in mortality.  It is quite striking to read from Memoirs of Jacques Casanova, a contemporary, that “More people perish at the hands of doctors than are cured by them” in those centuries, and in contrast the common belief that in those centuries medical men suddenly came up with “one-size-fits-all” cure for one of the most dreadful diseases of all time, which, with little modifications, if any, continued to be administered worldwide up until the second half of the XX century.

For several centuries until now, proponents of vaccination hailed smallpox vaccination to be a proven wonder weapon in the hands of mankind in eradicating the disease in the world, although there have been a number of schools of thought that, if not disprove, then diminish the role of smallpox vaccination in fighting the disease to an insignificant level, which is the change in the virulence of smallpox.

We must remember from European history that the period in which the most drastic decline in British smallpox mortality took place coincides with the time Britain experienced industrial revolution, and thus improved standards of living must have played crucial role in reducing susceptibility of the population towards infectious diseases (Krause, 1958). A good example is a paper written by several researchers from the University of Liverpool and Manchester that used time-series analysis to study the dynamics of smallpox in Britain in 1550-1800, and found a striking correlation between wheat price fluctuations and epidemics (Duncan, 1993; also see Helleiner, 1957). 

Economists almost always try to use models in order to come up with logical interpretations of current and past events.  One such paper (Mokyr, 1993) that tries to explain decline in mortality in the light of economic forces, used standard theory  of utility maximization as a starting point: Uj = Uj (Xij…Xnj, Lj) where L is composite family life expectancy variable, subject to the usual budget constraint ∑XiPi = Y.  It further goes on and tries to estimate the rise in knowledge (in hygiene and sanitation, in particular), relative prices, public goods (convergence towards best practices), and the like and their consequent influence on decreased mortality.  Economists agree that knowledge always has indirectly influenced every single area of man’s life, however the paper attempts to go beyond indirect relationship towards autonomous causality, and since lion’s share of mortality and morbidity is attributed to smallpox at that period in history, it does seem that a general rise in the level and scope of knowledge had direct effect on mortality decline throughout Britain.

Much has been said and written about the practice of vaccination in general and smallpox vaccination in particular.  If you read a couple articles and books on how lucky we were to obtain the knowledge about vaccination, you may feel that, if not vaccines, mankind would be wiped out from the Earth by the dreadful infectious diseases of all kind.  While I am writing this paper, hundreds more new vaccines are being developed in state-of-the-art medical laboratories and millions of people, young and old, are being vaccinated, despite the growing opposition from parents, scholars, and doctors against mandatory mass vaccination. It is interesting to note that vaccination remains to be the only medical practice that has to be enforced by law (NVIC.ORG).

A Remarkable Decline in Mortality

Mortality and morbidity of a population, although closely related, are two different things.  I do not want to elaborate that in a number of developed countries, including the United States, morbidity of the population has been growing, while mortality has been rather low (NVIC.ORG statistics).  In this paper, I tried to focus on falling of mortality rates in Britain between 18th and 20th centuries, and the causes of this remarkable decline.  Economic gains from falling mortality can never be precisely estimated, because human life is such the most precious thing one can ever have.  Between 1750 and 1914 mortality rates went down substantially everywhere in Europe, of course not at the same pace and the same extent.  For instance, life expectancy in Britain went from 30’s in 1750 to 50’s in 1914, and crude death rate fell from about 25 per thousand in 1750 to 14-15 per thousand in 1914.  The immediate cause of this dramatic shift is undisputedly decline in infectious diseases in Europe, but deeper causes of this phenomenon have been fueling debates among three major overlapping “schools” that have emerged to explain the causes behind the mortality decline.   “Nutritionist” school stresses improvement in living standards and food consumption as a result of economic growth to be major causes, whereas “preventist” school contends that this decline in mortality can be attributed primarily to public policy such as smallpox vaccination campaigns on mass level and cleaning of sewage systems.  The third school, “exogenists”, claims that the decline in mortality can be explained by reduced virulence of major infectious diseases on microbial level and positive changes in climate (Mokyr, 1993).

First inoculation and later vaccination is cited to be plausible explanation for this decline. Inoculation, in primitive and crude way, was practiced mainly in a few Oriental and African countries.  Due to the limited scale of inoculation, its efficacy was not known well.  People of England learnt about it in 1721 when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s daughter was inoculated in London (Tucker, 1963).

Inoculation must be formally defined to avoid mixing it with the more recent practice of vaccination. Smallpox inoculation is the injection of smallpox virus taken from actual smallpox wound of a patient, whereas smallpox vaccination is the injection of cowpox virus.  The symptoms these two practices produce slightly differ, but they are both carried out for the same purpose – developing immunity in people against the actual smallpox disease.  Edward Jenner was the founder of smallpox vaccination in Britain, and interestingly, it was by his medical induction that he believed that exposing a person to cowpox would render the person immune to smallpox (1798).  Nobody could prove empirically that this exactly was the case, and for instance William Hewson was not able to verify through numerous experiments what Jenner supposedly achieved.  Charles Creighton, a learned anti-vaccinator, in his book Jenner and Vaccination (1889), proved that Jenner not only failed to demonstrate, experimentally or otherwise, that cowpox and smallpox were biologically related, but nobody else, until the date Creighton’s own book was published, had done so (Greenwood, 1930).  Besides, the population, which was subject to various vaccination laws and acts, stubbornly resisted to vaccination (Milnes, 1897).  The City of Leicester became a center of such resistance, and despite the gloomy prophecies of medical men about huge toll to be paid due to a large unvaccinated population, it was one of the cities that suffered least from several epidemics of 19th century (NAVL, 1910).

Legal Side of the Story

In 1840 British Parliament passed “An Act to Extend the Practice of Vaccination”, by which smallpox inoculation that was used prior to smallpox vaccination to prevent this disease was made a penal offence.  Since the practice of smallpox inoculation dates back to 1721, it turns out this life-destroying practice lasted for a hundred and twenty years! 

The first compulsory vaccination law was Lord Lyttelton’s Act in 1853.  Lord Lyttelton is quoted to have said, “It is unnecessary for me to speak of the certainty of vaccination as a preventive of small-pox, that being a point on which the whole medical profession have arrived at complete unanimity”.  Despite a growing number of post-vaccinal morbidity and mortality cases (Krause, 1958), Britain passed another landmark vaccine law in 1867 - the vaccination law of England, which at once was put in force (Milnes, 1897).

Stakes Behind the Vaccination

Often, if not always, there are huge financial interests behind political goals.  Due to mostly qualitative information concerning the vaccination in the stated period, and inexistence of reliable statistical body for the most part of it, “There is no means of accurately gauging the amount paid for treating diseases subsidiary, or arising from vaccination” (NAVL, 1910).  However, the below brief table for Ireland will illustrate that substantial finances were committed to the vaccination practice.

 Table 1.  Annual Reports for the Local Government Board for Ireland:

Year Ending 31 March

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