How 22 Spanish orphans became ‘the vaccine’ to beat smallpox in the Americas

This is the unlikely story of how in 1803 one doctor, one ship and 22 Spanish orphans serving as human fridges helped the world beat smallpox by carrying out the first international vaccination campaign.

How 22 Spanish orphans became 'the vaccine' to beat smallpox in the Americas
British physician Edward Jenner may have administered the first vaccine but it was a Spanish doctor that helped to export the inoculation around the world. Painting: Ernest Board (1806)

We’re living through a time in history where the emergence and resurgence of viruses is becoming more prevalent, from the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to the appearance of monkeypox, with several cases recently recorded in Spain, Portugal and the UK.

Monkeypox is a similar virus to smallpox, a devastating illness that was finally eradicated in 1980. The virus causes high fever, body aches, headaches and chills, as well as a rash of boils or sores. 

READ ALSO: Eight suspected monkeypox cases detected in Spain

While historians and scientists believe that smallpox has been around for the last 3,000 years, monkeypox was first discovered in 1958 when two outbreaks occurred in a group of monkeys kept for research. The first human case of monkeypox was recorded in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The first vaccine

During the 18th century, smallpox was rife throughout the world and was killing millions. It was around this time that English doctor Edward Jenner saw that people who caught the milder bovine virus of cowpox never actually caught the deadlier smallpox.

So in 1796, he took the pus from a cowpox lesion on a milkmaid’s hand and inoculated an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps, rendering him immune to smallpox and creating the world’s first vaccine.

But it was in fact Spain that played a pivotal role in getting this vaccine out to the masses and helping to bring the smallpox virus under control. 

How did they transport vaccines in the 18th and 19th century?

Even today, transporting vaccines proves to be problematic, best evidenced by the specific temperature and storage requirements of some of the Covid-19 vaccines, as well the logistical delays and other distribution obstacles.

But back in the early 19th century, doctors and scientists came up against even more problems.

Health professionals at the time invented an ingenious method of taking the puss-like fluid from the sores of those with cowpox and placing it on a piece of material to dry out.

They would then travel to the next town and mix the dried puss with water, before scratching it into people’s skin to infect them with cowpox, thus protecting them from smallpox.

This method seemed to work in Europe, where distances between towns were relatively close.

The arrival of Spain’s Conquistadores in America led to the spread of viruses such as smallpox among native populations, killing millions, including the Aztecs of present-day Mexico.

However, the vaccine wouldn’t stay fresh long enough to take it further across the seas to the Americas. It wouldn’t even work for distances from one European capital to the next, only from town to town. 

Children become the vaccine carriers

This is where Spain comes in. The colonial power was desperate to send the vaccine over to its South American territories, where the virus was running rampant throughout the population, killing around half of those it infected.

In 1803, a doctor from Alicante in eastern Spain, Francisco Javier de Balmis, came up with a plan and asked Spain’s King Carlos IV, whose own daughter had died of smallpox, to fund a new mission.

His plan was to sail to the Americas with 22 Spanish orphans on board, infecting them with cowpox along the way, a plan that wouldn’t have much chance of being approved in this day and age due to human rights laws, but this was the early 18th century.

Francisco Javier de Balmis was integral in helping the first international vaccine campaign. Source: Foundling / WikiCommons

The cowpox vaccine only survived in the body for up to 12 days, so at the beginning of the journey only two of the orphans were infected with smallpox. Then, ten days later when they were sick enough and had boils all over their skin, doctors on board would lance these sores and infect two more boys. The aim was to keep this going every ten days until they reached South America.

Miraculously, the plan of using the orphans as vessels for the virus worked, and although all the children got sick, none of them died.

By the time the ship docked in Venezuela in March 1804, one boy still had fresh sores and puss which could be used to vaccinate the local population. 

Balmis and his team set about vaccinating the locals straight away and then split up, with half the team travelling through what is today Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and the other half up to Mexico.

Amazingly, using this method of lancing boils and moving from town to town, they managed to vaccinate around 200,000 people, most of whom were children.

Locals who received news of their arrival would greet the heroes with all the flamboyance of a Spanish fiesta – complete with music, bullfights and fireworks. 

The mission was not yet complete

Balmis left the 22 original orphans with adoptive families in Mexico and then set out on a new voyage with a brand new set of children for the Spanish colony of the Philippines.

The ship arrived in April 1805 and again astonishingly the plan worked. Here, Blamís and his team were able to vaccinate a further 20,000. 

This vaccination plan was so successful again, that Balmis took the vaccine to China to keep inoculating the population there too. 

Thanks to the ingenious methods of one Spanish doctor and the bravery of 22 Spanish orphans, Jenner’s original vaccine was able to reach the far corners of the world, vaccinating hundreds of thousands and saving countless lives. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


How a town on Spain’s Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Traditional wisdom tells us that many Nazis escaped to South America, but hundreds more also made Spain home following WWII with the help of fascist dictator Franco. The Valencian town of Dénia in particular hides a very dark past.

How a town on Spain's Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Dénia, a small upmarket Costa Blanca port town on Spain’s easterly Mediterranean coast, is most famous for its golden beaches and lively street life.

If you’ve visited, you might’ve taken a stroll through the quaint town up to its castle, overlooking the picturesque marina, or seen the Roman ruins in its museum.

What you might not have realised is that that following the Second World War, Dénia became not only a place of transit for Nazis fleeing Europe (known as a ‘ratline’) but a place of safe haven for many who were allowed to make a home and enjoy their retirement there.

In reality, Dénia’s crystal clear waters have a much murkier past that reveals the ease with with Nazis settled on Spain’s costas, and the uncomfortable relationship between Franco’s Spain and the Third Reich.

READ MORE: Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

From the 1930s to the mid-1990s there is evidence of the presence of prominent Nazis in the town of Denia (Alicante province). Photo: Capturando el Tiempo en Segundos/Unsplash

Costa Blanca, Nazi retirement home?

The Costa Blanca is one of the most sought after and visited tourist spots in the world. So much so, it seems, that even former Nazis agreed.

Dénia was, for example, the chosen destination of Gerhard Bremer, a high ranking Sturmbannführer in the Waffen SS who was awarded, among a whole host of medals and awards, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – an accolade only awarded for serious commitment to Nazi Germany.

After being convicted at the Nuremberg trials, Bremer lived happily in Dénia until his death in 1989, becoming a local businessmen and building bungalows and hotels during the birth of tourism on the Costa Blanca.

Bremer and his family were reportedly integrated in the community, with his children attending local schools. 

In fact, some Nazis were so comfortable in Spain that many, although remaining discreet of course, never felt the need to renounce their Nazi ideology.

According to Spanish historian José Muñoz, every April 20th a group of Germans met at the Finita restaurant in Dénia to celebrate Hitler’s birth.

“They did it in a discreet way, a small group of people during the week, not with a party open to the whole town,” he told Spanish website Newtrawl, “they were not idiots”.

READ MORE: Spain seeks return of Nazi gifts ‘proving’ Aryan origins

Another of the first to arrive on the Costa Blanca was Johannes Bernhardt, an honourary general of the SS and businessman who had supplied weapons to Franco, who then rewarded him with Spanish nationality in order to prevent his deportation.

According to historian Stanley G. Payne, “Bernhardt lived discreetly between Madrid and Dénia, without integrating with the locals. In 1953, he left for Argentina.

A third prominent Nazi in Dénia was Anton Galler, alleged by the Italian government to be the commander of the Nazi army responsible for a massacre at Sant’Anna. He lived in Dénia for the rest of his life and was buried there in 1995.

It is also believed that the notorious Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the mission to rescue Benito Mussolini from captivity in September 1943 and who was nicknamed ‘the most dangerous man in Spain’, also lived on the Costa Blanca. 

Hitler shakes hands with Spanish fascist dictaror Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border October 23rd1940. (Photo by AFP)

Nazis in other parts of Spain

These notable examples of known high-ranking Nazis in Dénia are just handful of hundreds of suspected Nazis that made their homes in Spain following the war.

And it was no secret; in 1947 the United States wrote to Franco with a list of 104 people suspected of being Nazis, or at least connected to the Nazi party, who were on Spanish territory.

Their initial list was as many as 1,600 names, although ultimately the Americans focused on the 104 most notorious names on the list for extradition. 

But perhaps former high-ranking Nazis making their home in Spain didn’t come as that much of a surprise to the British intelligence services.

During the war many in the British establishment worried about Spanish sympathies towards Nazi Germany, so much so that MI6 bribed top Spanish officials with bribes equivalent to €179 million in order to maintain the country’s neutrality.

Infamous Belgian Nazi Léon Degrelle made a home in Málaga, on the Costa del Sol, and in this case went to no great lengths to hide his identity. After relocating to Málaga with the help of the Spanish government and keeping a low profile for a few years, Degrelle became an increasingly public figure in the 1960s.

He socialised with other Nazis hiding out in Spain, including Austrian SS coronel Otto Skorzeny, and even wore his SS uniform to his daughter’s wedding in1969. 

After diplomatic tensions between Spain and Belgium throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Degrelle took Spanish citizenship and lived very comfortably in Málaga having done well financially because his construction company built American airbases in Spain, incredibly, under his real name.

Degrelle felt so comfortable in Spain, in fact, that he attended a centenary celebration of Hitler’s birthday in Madrid in 1989.

As for Skorzeny, who wasn’t so happy to also be nicknamed Scarface, in an interview with the Daily Express in 1952 he said: “I finally feel free in Spain, I can remove my mask and don’t have any reasons to live in secret”.

There are hundreds more Nazis and Nazi sympathisers who found a safe haven in Francoist Spain, from the Basque Country to Barcelona or Mallorca, living the rest of their lives in peace under the Spanish sun despite the crimes they committed. 

If you wish to delve further into the history of the Nazis in Spain, there are several books offering far more detail on the matter, as well as the 2021 Spanish-Belgian film The Replacement (trailer below) or the new Spanish series Jaguar.