The Story of How I Survived ‘Smallpox’

This is a photo of my leg.

It was taken circa 2012 when I was living in a developing nation. ( I used to have a photo of my face covered in these sores, but that photo has since been lost to the ether).

The locals there call these sores ‘pala’ (it’s common, especially amongst children). Here in the West, I would have been swabbed for a staph infection.

150 yrs ago it would have been classed as smallpox.

When they claim to have ‘eradicated smallpox’ from the world, what they’re really claiming is to have eradicated a pathogen (if such a thing were possible, especially since neither Jenner’s early vaccine, nor the later glycerinated calf lymph vaccine, or the current one used for military personnel used the actual virus said to cause smallpox – but a related virus from the same family [1-2], and given to only some of the population – according to WHO estimates, less than 50% in some African countries, up to 80% in other countries.) [3]

What they did not eradicate is the disfiguring skin diseases that still plague people in poorer nations, and would have once been included in smallpox statistics.

I eventually recovered from that bout, after I relented and went to the catholic nuns clinic. It was run by little old nuns, who were kind, but didn’t mince words. We arrived there early in the morning, and there was already a small crowd milling around the front door and sitting on the long bench seats. I took a number (34, I still remember) and went back to the van to put my swollen, throbbing legs up. The sun climbed higher into the sky. The humidity of tropical wet season was stifling, and my 4mth old daughter was sweaty and cranky.

FINALLY, as the afternoon sun beat down mercilessly, my number was called. I hobbled past the benches of people still waiting, into the little clinic rooms. The nun made tssking noises as she liked at my sores, then instructed a local girl to fill a bucket of warm water with disinfectant in it. I sat with my legs in that warm water for 15 minutes or so, then a nun came with a pair of tweezers, and began to pull off the crusty scabs that covered the sores. Yeah, that was fun. But it was necessary, because until you got rid of the scab, the infection continued to fester away underneath.

When she finally finished, she dabbed the sores with a silver cream, then wound bandages around my feet and up my legs, and around my face. I bet I looked a sight. As I hobbled back out through the waiting area, past the few patients still waiting patiently in the humid heat, I could hear the murmers of pity.

As per the nun’s instructions, I had to bathe in the ocean each day. The first day I went to the ocean, happened to be at high tide, and the waves rushing past my legs was excruciating, as the weeping sores had again formed scabs that had to be washed off. It took more than 10 days for the sores to heal. I still have pockmarks on my lower legs, one inside my wrist, one on my chest, but mercifully none on my face.

Over the next several years, I had several bouts of this, but only ever when I was under stress, and each bout was less severe than the last. Each time, the sores were preceded by what seemed like itchy bites, that would appear overnight. I wondered if it was bedbugs, and in fact, approximately 120 years ago, one Texan doctor became convinced that bedbugs (Cimex Lectularius) were the true cause of smallpox.

Charles Campbell MD (1865 – 1931) was a remarkable doctor, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize, for his work on using bats to control mosquito populations. He also spent a number of years observing and conducting experiments surrounding bedbugs, as head of the ‘Pest House’ (where smallpox patients were quarantined and cared for). He observed that bed bugs were always present, where smallpox was present.

He noted that there was no evidence that bed bugs had existed in North America, until the white man arrived. (This would potentially explain why handing out blankets, which were likely inhabited by bed bugs, to Native American tribes, who were also presumably being introduced to the settler’s nutrient-poor foodstuffs, along with the stress and trauma of having their way of life up-ended) resulted in smallpox devastation of tribes.

(It could also explain why ‘sanitation’ worked so well in Leicestershire, England?)

Campbell also noted that smallpox began to recede as washing machines became commonplace [4].

My personal belief, at this point in time, is that some type of bite starts the process, and infection takes hold ONLY in individuals that are run down or nutrient depleted. Some of the pictures portraying smallpox victims covered in scabs, without so much as a space between scabs, could, I feel, potentially be explained by the conventional treatment methods used for smallpox at the time.

For example, one of the treatment methods was applying gauze that had been soaked in phenol (also known as carbolic acid), or bichloride of mercury [5]. Carbolic acid, of course, is highly corrosive and results in inflammation and blistering [6]. Daily baths containing bichloride of mercury were also used [7].

If patients became feverish (hardly surprising, given the skin infections and the mercury treatments) bromide drugs were given. One of the notable side effects of bromides is pustular skin eruptions – known as bromoderma, a sign of bromide toxicity [8]. A Google image search of bromoderma shows pustules that look similar to those attributed to smallpox.

[1] Esparza J, Schrick L, Damaso CR. Equination (inoculation of horsepox): An early alternative to vaccination (inoculation of cowpox) and the potential role of horsepox virus in the origin of the smallpox vaccine, Vaccine, 2017, 35(52): 7222-7230

[2] Damaso CR. Revisiting Jenner’s mysteries, the role of the Beaugency lymph in the evolutionary path of ancient smallpox vaccines, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 2018, 18(2):e55-e63.
[3] Belongia EA, Naleway AL. Smallpox vaccine: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Clin Med Res. 2003;1(2):87-92.

[4] Campbell C.A.R, Bats, Mosquitos & Dollars, The Stratford Company Publishers, Boston Massachusetts, 1925.

[5] Blumgarten AS. A Text Book of Medicine – For Students in Schools of Nursing, Macmillan, 1937.

[6] Science Lab, Phenol MSDS, Available at: HMDB00228.pdf. Accessed December, 2020].


[8] Hoefel ID, Camozzato FO, Hagemann LN, Rhoden DL, Kiszewski AE. Bromoderma in an infant. An Bras Dermatol. 2016;91(5 suppl 1):17-19.