Living or dying during the 1797 smallpox epidemic in Mexico City
Blum, Camille Ashley
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This master's thesis is a short historical fiction piece that describes the 1797 smallpox epidemic in Mexico City during which inoculation was widely utilized for the first time in the Spanish colonies in order to decrease the fatalities attributed to this disease. A major portion of the background information and sources for this story came from the State files in the Archive of the Indies located in Seville, Spain. These files held numerous letters sent to the King of Spain in 1798 from the viceroy of New Spain, Marqués de Branciforte, and the civil judge, Cosme de Mier y Trespalacios. These letters contained extensive material on two vital aspects of the 1797 epidemics: the precautions against the spread of smallpox implemented by the government in Mexico City and the statistics of the number of people inoculated, the number of people infected, and the number of people killed. Beyond the archival research, more information about Mexico City at the end of the 18th Century was accumulated by perusing relevant journal articles such as Mark A Burkholder's "Audiencia" in the Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture and Paul Ramírez's "'Like Herod's Massacre': Quarantines, Bourbon Reform, and Popular Protest in Oaxaca's Smallpox Epidemic, 1796-1797" in The Academy of American Franciscan History . Also, Donald B. Cooper's book, Epidemic Disease in Mexico City 1761-1813: An Administrative, Social, and Medical Studywas exceptionally helpful as it provided the context necessary to create fictional characters appropriate to Mexico City for a time period over two centuries ago. The epidemic of 1797 in New Spain was unique in that the controversial inoculation procedure was more widely utilized in the population. The debate surrounding the risks and potential of inoculation marks a pivotal stage in the history of medicine, thus this topic was investigated in the works of Vicente Ferrer, Francisco Gil, Jaime Menós de Llena, Timoteo O'Scanlan, and Francisco Salvá Campillo. In addition to these pieces on smallpox and inoculation, Simon André David Tissot's book, Warning to the Townwas reviewed for all of the basic treatments and symptoms of smallpox, as this book was widely available in the Spanish colonies at the end of the 18th Century. Although mankind utilized the technique of inoculation as early as 1000 A.D., this procedure was not introduced to the Western world until early in the 18 th century. This "new" preventative option against the contagious smallpox disease was utilized on a limited basis in the 1720's in both Britain and, across the Atlantic Ocean, in the city of Boston. However, even with its numerous successes, the few fatalities associated with inoculation simulated a huge debate about the safety and necessity of the widespread usage of this potentially dangerous procedure. As a result, in the ensuing decades individual doctors practiced inoculation but its widespread implementation was not sponsored politically until the 1797 epidemic in Mexico City. Due to the significant loss of lives during the preceding smallpox strike of 1779 on Mexico City, drastic measures had to be taken resulting in the government's approval of widespread inoculation. This was a significant moment in history as it paved the way for the acceptance of the smallpox vaccination that Edward Jenner created in 1796 which led to the eventual eradication of this horrible disease. Although you now understand the historical significance of the 1797 smallpox epidemic, you cannot truly understand the pain smallpox caused or the uncertainty surrounding inoculation from this detached perspective. My thesis takes on a personal and in-depth description of the horrific events of this historical epidemic from the viewpoints of three very different characters: a civil judge, a doctor, and a child. Using these varied perspectives, I portray for you the anxiety, fear, and agony so often associated with smallpox epidemics in the 18 th century, however, completely unfamiliar to the population today. These historically accurate events of 1797 show how people reacted to a deadly epidemic without any effective treatment options and with a preventative measure that many warned could spread the disease even more.