The Tragic Death of Janet Parker, Smallpox’s Last Victim

“[Humans are] a virus with shoes, okay? That’s all we are.” —Bill Hicks

In A Nutshell

In 1978, a medical photographer named Janet Parker became the last person to die from smallpox. The office she worked in at England’s University of Birmingham Medical School, was connected via an unfiltered air duct to a laboratory where smallpox samples were being studied. One of the deadliest strains of the disease traveled through this vent, where it infected Janet and killed her several days later.

The Whole Bushel

Smallpox is universally regarded as one of the deadliest viruses to ever exist, having killed an estimated 300–500 million people throughout history. In the 1970s, the World Health Organization (WHO) enacted a vaccination program aimed at eradicating the disease once and for all. As a result of this, research laboratories throughout the world were tasked with studying the disease. One such laboratory was at the University of Birmingham Medical School in England.

In the room above the laboratory was the office of Janet Parker, a medical photographer employed by the university. On August 11, 1978, Parker fell ill with a headache and muscular pain and developed what she thought was a simple benign rash. On being admitted to hospital on August 24, she was diagnosed with one of the most lethal strains of smallpox, Variola major, despite being vaccinated against it in 1966. It was later concluded that Parker had been infected with the disease after particles of it traveled through an air duct connecting her office and the laboratory.

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Less than three weeks later, on September 11, Janet died. In response, the British government opened an inquiry into the death. The results were startling. It transpired that the laboratory had previously been inspected by the Dangerous Pathogens Advisory Group, who recommended that the laboratory remain open despite numerous inadequacies in its safety measures and staff training program. On top of this, it was proven that the academic responsible for running the laboratory—Professor Henry Bedson, who himself committed suicide on September 6 over the outbreak—had lied to the WHO about the research being undertaken at the facility, keeping it open even though he knew it did not meet safety regulations.

Show Me The Proof

The House of Commons: Report of The Investigation into The Cause of The 1978 Birmingham Smallpox Occurrence
Smallpox Scares: Hugh Pennington

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