The Story of the Last Person to Die of Smallpox

Smallpox was one of the worlds biggest killers, taking hundreds of millions of lives world wide. Those who managed to survive this extremely fatal, painful disease, were often left permanently disabled. It is thanks to modern medicine and research that we have successfully eradicated this disease now.

The last person to die of small was Janet Parker – a medical photographer working at the University of Birmingham.

Directly below her office was a laboratory run by Professor Henry Bedson. Bedson believed he was about to make a breakthrough in the field of smallpox so the World Health Organization began sending him smallpox samples.

When it was discovered that his facility did not meet the correct safety requirements, they stopped sending the virus. However, there was no funding to improve the safety of his workspace. This meant the team continued work with the airborne killer without air locks, separate showers, protective clothing or even safety cabinets.

At some point, the virus traveled into the air system and reached the workspace of Janet Parker.

She first came down with flu-like symptoms and, until the characteristic smallpox pustules appeared, doctors believed she had an adverse drug reaction. When smallpox was suspected, she was quarantined along with those who she had come into contact with.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Henry Bedson killed himself by cutting his throat in his garden. Several days after this, Janet Parker’s father died of a heart attack – caused by the stress of the situation. A while after, Janet Parker became the last victim of the disease, and her Mother was successfully treated.

This heartbreaking incident serves as a reminder why laboratory safety procedures are vital, and must be stringently followed.

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