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TODAY IN BERLIN AND KREUZBERG: OCTOBER 31st – LITTLE SPOTS IN HISTORY

My eldest son has chicken pox. We did not need to take him to any of the so called “chicken pox parties” (not that it would have crossed our minds in the first place), where parents bring their offspring to play with an already infected friend in order for the kid to catch the virus and get done with it while young. He caught it in the good old way: somebody at school had it and selflessly shared it with others.

His spotty little face was the reason why I noticed a small piece of information in today´s historic Berlin calendar and decided to put it in the, well, spotlight.

We as parents consider ourselves extremely lucky in that the disease we have to deal with today is only a relatively harmless sister of the true pest which killed millions of people (mostly children) within a period of a hundred years only.

Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of Prussia´s greatest battle against smallpox.

 1803

By the end of the 18th century in Europe smallpox, a terrifyingly infectious and extremely dangerous disease which killed, debilitated, disabled or disfigured its victims with relentless regularity, was responsible for the death of 400,000 people every year. It caused one third of all cases of blindness and led to the death of between 20% and 60% of all children (killing 80% of all those infected).

In fact, in many places in Europe at the time a child was not really considered to be part of the family until it survived a bout of smallpox. A defence mechanism developed by the parents of the day: after all, the disease would have taken 10% of all of their children before the age of 10 anyway…

It spared no-one: rich, poor, wise or stupid, talented or dumb. Among the smallpox survivors were Mozart (he suffered it at the age of 11 and was left scared), Haydn, Beethoven (scarred face and possibly other complications including the loss of hearing later in life), Goethe and the world famous German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (whom the childhood smallpox left with weak vision and crippled hands).

It did not spare the royals, either. According to David A. Koplow in his Smallpox: The Fight to Eradicate a Global Scourge “in the first eight decades of the 18th century, smallpox killed an Austrian emperor, a king of Spain, a tsar of Russia, a queen of Sweden, and a king of France”. And that was just the highest shelf.

In 1789, during yet another epidemics of smallpox in Europe and in Prussia, the heir to the Prussian throne and the future king Friedrich-Wilhelm III and his younger brother Ludwig underwent smallpox inoculation (the word vaccination did not exist yet – it was about to be born in 1796). To keep them from contracting the disease, they stayed locked up at the palace in Wilhelmstrasse. It was here that the English medical expert in smallpox, Dr Browne carried out the procedure. For his efforts he was handsomely rewarded: once it became clear that the boys would survive the inoculation (not an obvious thing either), he was paid 10,000 Thaler and given an increased annuity of 1200 Thaler (instead of the 600 he received before).

Knowing the horror of smallpox from his closest environment, the future Friedrich-Wilhelm III was following the developments in England with great care and was in deep awe of Dr Jenner´s discovery: vaccination or the inoculation against smallpox by injecting people with its much lighter form known as cow pox (hence the word “vaccination” – from Latin vacca for cow). Once he became the king, Friedrich-Wilhelm made sure that Prussia profited from that discovery, too.

 Dr Edward Jenner in a portrait by by James NorthcoteDr Edward Jenner in a portrait by by James Northcote

He supported the efforts of Prussian doctors who either brought the vaccine to Berlin and other big cities themselves or had it sent over from England (not seldom by Dr Jenner himself). The progress was fast: already in 1800-1801 most of the big and mid-sized German cities were running their own trials.

In Berlin the chief proponent of vaccination was Dr Johann Immanuel Bremer, the head of the medical staff at the main city orphanage, Friedrichs-Waisenhaus. His Vaccination Schools, teaching the colleagues the necessary technique were up and running as early as 1800. First samples did not work, unfortunately, but a soon as the vaccination material sent by Dr Jenner arrived in Prussia´s capital, the results were immediately visible. To spread the news about the successful fight against then worst form of pest in human history, Bremer published a book about vaccination in 1801. And in 1802 he became the first head of the Royal Prussian Smallpox Vaccination Institute – Königlich-Preußisches Schutzblattern-Impf-Institut in Berlin. Between 1802 and 1811, the year when he left his post at the institute, Bremer vaccinated 14,600 persons himself!

Dr Johann Immanuel Bremer (image: Austrian National Library)

Dr Johann Immanuel Bremer (image: Austrian National Library)

The word Schutzblattern was another name the authorities chose to use to describe the vaccination. And and just as Blattern, pox, it is obsolete today. In reality, it was called Kuhpocken Impfung or Cow Pox Inoculation. However, to make it more “user-friendly” and not to scare away those rejecting the idea of being vaccinated with a virus taken from a cow, the decision was taken to name replace the word Kuh with Schutz (protection).

Not that it helped much: still for many years to come were the doctors to fight the scepticism, the disinterest or the open rejection among the public (mostly in the countryside and in the lower classes). Their negative attitude came as a surprise to the enthusiastic bordering on elated medics. It took plenty of efforts and equally much inventiveness to overcome that distrust. One of the more cheerful examples of that fight was the introduction of a new celebration day called Krengelfest in Bückeburg, where after a small parade all children vaccinated that day were given a Krengel (a pretzel) as a present. The idea came from the local doctor, Dr Faust and the tradition is observed until today, however, minus the inoculation. Unfortunately, that scepticism and distrust experienced by the early vaccination experts back then seem to be on rise again today – fewer and fewer children receive the necessary preventive injections these days.

A caricature ridiculing the new form of inoculation and threatening those vaccinated with idiotic but back then scary consequences

A caricature ridiculing the new form of inoculation and threatening those vaccinated with idiotic but back then scary consequences

Progress might have been slow in the 1800´s but it was undoubtedly there. The Royal Prussian Smallpox Vaccination Institute opened on December 5th, 1802. The official trails were running from June 7th and covered 7,445 variolations (another word for smallpox inoculation).

On October 31, 1803 a royal decree was issued introducing and providing the legal background for free vaccination in Berlin and Prussia. After one year and 50,000 procedures later on October 31st, 1804 another decree will be issued, licensing all doctors in Prussia to vaccinate their patients, especially the elderly and the children.

In 1874 a law will be passed making vaccination obligatory and naming the consequences of evading the procedure or of negligence during the inoculation. It will be in power in a slightly adjusted form until 1976 when the obligation will be partly lifted. 1977, the same year the last documented case of smallpox in the world was registered in Somalia, will see the last mass vaccination in Germany. Several years later, in May 1983 the obligation will be completely removed. The last case of smallpox  in Germany was registered in 1972 (carried over from Kosovo). In only 11 years the necessity to get all people vaccinated seemed to have disappeared for good from the face of the Earth.

Today the virus is believed to exist in only two places, both of them extremely (one would hope!) safe: at the US Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta and at a similar place in Russian Novosybirsk. It might be interesting to know, however, that in 2003 its rests – in the form of dried smallpox scabs used for inoculation before Jenner´s method proved more successful –  were found in a small envelope tucked into an old medical book in a public library in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA. They proved harmless, though.

So now, knowing what horrific a disease smallpox was and knowing what heroic efforts it must have taken to eradicate that horror, we are calm in the knowledge that our spotty little patient might feel poorly and itchy but this is also hopefully as poor as he will ever get. The chances are good.

2 comments on “TODAY IN BERLIN AND KREUZBERG: OCTOBER 31st – LITTLE SPOTS IN HISTORY

  1. berlioz1935
    October 31, 2013

    More and more people refuse to vaccinate their children here in Australia too. They simply can’t see the reason for it and they claim vaccination pnly makes their children ill. It is back to the Middle Ages.

    • notmsparker
      October 31, 2013

      I find it impossible to justify this kind of behaviour. I consider it thoughtless and dangerous for it usually hits those least responsible the most: your children or the children of others.

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