FLANKED BY MASKED ATTENDANTS, an idol of a goddess of smallpox is carried in procession at an unspecified location in India, in 1890. The idol is likely of Shitala—roughly, the one who cools—a goddess then particularly popular in north India, and one of the many deities worshipped across the country.
In 1796, Edward Jenner, an English scientist, successfully vaccinated an eight-year-old boy against smallpox using the related cowpox virus, and went on to repeat the procedure on numerous subjects. Others in England and Europe had performed inoculations earlier, and the practice had existed even centuries before in China, the Ottoman Empire and, arguably, India. But until Jenner’s work, it was not scientifically proven or understood. Smallpox is thought to have afflicted humans since as early as 10,000 BCE, and is estimated to have claimed up to 500 million lives during the twentieth century alone. Major vaccination campaigns in the centuries following Jenner’s breakthrough reduced the spread of the disease. The last smallpox infection occurred in 1978, following a laboratory accident in England; the last known natural infection was recorded in 1977, in Somalia.