Smallpox and the Seventeenth Century


I just finished reading this post from the excellent Anne Boleyn Files about Queen Elizabeth I’s bout with smallpox on this day in 1562 and it made me think of how many people throughout history that were affected by this terrible disease. Rich and poor alike, this disease was nasty, and there were varying strains of the disease. The worst, called Hemorrhagic smallpox, was almost always fatal.

Think of poor William III, whose father, William II of Orange-Nassau died one week before William III was born, and then his mother, Mary Stuart, Princess Royal of England and Princess of Orange, died of smallpox when he was only ten. He nearly died himself in his early twenties from the disease, only to have his beloved wife Mary die from it, aged only 32, in 1694.

This disease killed and disfigured many people, from all walks of life, but for women in Charles II’s court, where beauty and youth was often the key to power and advancement, a bout of smallpox could wreak havoc. This was the case with celebrated beauty Francis Stewart, the face of Britannia, who made Charles II go mad with desire for her. She contracted smallpox and lost her looks.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter Five of my book, William and Mary, where I wrote about smallpox:

Ladies feared the contagion, for if it did not kill, it disfigured horribly; and where there was once beauty, the smallpox would ravage it, rendering it ugly to once adoring eyes.

I think many of us don’t take the time to think about how lucky we are not to have this affect our lives as it did in the past. My mother and sisters have the tell-tale large scar on their upper arms which is where they received their vaccine for smallpox and I am so grateful, so grateful, that we live in a time where we have such miracles – miracles that science have brought us. Sadly, so many of us don’t give it a second thought, but we must. Remember how many people suffered throughout the world with this horrible disease.

For more information about smallpox, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002332/

For an excellent book of pestilence throughout history, I strongly recommend the Encyclopaedia of Plague and Pestilence: from Ancient Times to the Present, which I’ve used extensively throughout the past ten years:

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…and for a wonderful book which focuses on the maladies from which the Stuarts suffered, check out The Sickly Stuarts:

[amazon asin=0750932929&template=image&chan=default]

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