Young Orphans Used as Human Refrigerators

There are stories you expect to be uncontroversially positive and stories you expect to be irredeemably negative. The Balmis Expedition defies such binary categorization. On the one hand, it’s the tale of the first international effort to get vaccines into arms all over the world—an instance of a monarch choosing to put resources toward improving public health and eradicating a horrific disease.

On the other hand, it involves young orphans—toddlers, in some cases—being crowded onto ships and sent around the world to serve as human incubators. But even those two polarities risk oversimplifying this moment in history.

By the 1700s, smallpox was a horrific fact of life, killing an estimated 400,000 people throughout Europe each year. But things were even worse in the Americas, which had been exposed to smallpox by Spanish invaders starting in the 1500s. It’s thought to have contributed to the downfall of the Incas and Aztecs, as the disease was almost always fatal to indigenous populations. 

King Charles IV of Spain had lost several family members to smallpox and seen several of the survivors scarred significantly by virolation, which as I talked about on a past episode of Weirdest Thing, was the practice of purposefully infecting people with smallpox scabs or pus that had been weakened with steam or some other method.

Because virolation actually infected you with smallpox, albeit often a weaker case than you’d catch naturally, you still got sick and had pus-filled lesions. 

That changed in the 1790s, when Edward Jenner tested pus from cowpox blisters as a less dangerous form of inoculation, thereby inventing vaccines as we know them. He tested it in 1796 on his gardener’s son, which is a bit of a foreshadowing. 

In 1803, King Charles announced his intention to provide free vaccination to the masses in the Spanish colonies—and to leave each region with the resources and knowledge necessary to continue their own vaccination programs in the future. Royal physician Francisco Javier de Balmis, who had spent time in Mexico researching botany and folk medicine, led the charge. 

The hitch: Pus could stay usable on a piece of cloth or pressed between glass and sealed with wax for a journey of a few days, but what then? Some suggested bringing cows on board and slowly giving them cowpox one by one.

But cows are loud, messy, and large—so Balmis went with 22 Spanish orphans between the age of 3 and 9 instead. Two boys would be infected with cowpox, and just before their pustules healed over, their pus would be used to inoculate another pair, and so on. The group made it to the Americas just in time to use one final remaining pustule—and to replenish their chain of children by renting some from local families. 

By the time the expedition finished, some 300,000 people in the Canaries, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, the Philippines and China had received the vaccine for free. 

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3 thoughts on “Young Orphans Used as Human Refrigerators

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  1. Refrigerators is a totally incorredt term in this headline,.I have no idea what it means in the context of this story. You did use the correct word “incubator” in the story itself. Please note that refrigeration means cold while incubation means warm. Bacteria and viruses grow in warm environments (the human body),.

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