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With not enough hospital beds for London’s smallpox sufferers, they moved patients to ships

Tijana Radeska

Between the 15th and the 19th centuries, smallpox hit England a number of times, and each outbreak was more dangerous than the last. It was a disease that everyone feared because not only was it deadly but frequently it left those who survived blind or with long-term facial scarring.

It was an infectious disease, transmitted through inhalation of airborne variola virus that resulted in either of the two variants, Variola major or Variola minor, with the latter a milder form of the disease. So people could become infected through close contact with a person who already had the virus or through contact with clothes, bed sheets, or other possessions of an infected person.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era central Mexico with smallpox.

Drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1540–1585), showing Nahuas of conquest-era central Mexico with smallpox.

Smallpox was the main cause of death in Europe for four centuries. It did not spare royalty, with Elizabeth I suffering from the disease and nearly dying of it in 1562. Rulers in other countries who died of smallpox include King Louis I of Spain in 1724, Tsar Peter II of Russia in 1730,  King Louis XV of France in 1774, and Maximilian III Joseph, the Elector of Bavaria, in 1777.

The steps taken by Edward Jenner to create vaccination, the first vaccine for smallpox. Jenner did this by inoculating James Phipps with cowpox, a virus similar to smallpox, to create immunity, unlike variolation, which used smallpox to create an immunity to itself.

The steps taken by Edward Jenner to create vaccination, the first vaccine for smallpox. Jenner did this by inoculating James Phipps with cowpox, a virus similar to smallpox, to create immunity, unlike variolation, which used smallpox to create an immunity to itself.

It was in 1796 when Edward Jenner used the bovine variant, cowpox, to inoculate against smallpox, thus creating a vaccine against the disease that had long terrified the continent. For this he became known as the father of immunology.

Edward Jenner.

Edward Jenner.

Jenner’s cure significantly reduced the number of smallpox cases in Europe. In 1853, the smallpox vaccination was made compulsory by the British government. But there were still epidemics that occurred during the 19th century in Britain. And as such, no hospital had the capacity to accommodate the infected. The London Smallpox Hospital had only 100 beds to accommodate 1,000 infected.

HMS Atlas, launched 1860 but never completed. Served as a hospital ship at Greenwich from 1881 – 1904. HMS Endymion is astern of Atlas

HMS Atlas, launched 1860 but never completed. Served as a hospital ship at Greenwich from 1881 – 1904. HMS Endymion is astern of Atlas

In 1867, assuming legal responsibility for supervising the care of those infected with smallpox, the Metropolitan Asylums Board proposed two solutions.

A ward on board Atlas

A ward on board Atlas

One was the building of smallpox hospitals at different locations across London.

HMS Endymion, pictured on 23 January 1809, by Admiral Sir Charles Paget.

HMS Endymion, pictured on 23 January 1809, by Admiral Sir Charles Paget.

The ships were initially docked at Greenwich and thousands of patients received treatment there. Atlas had 120 beds although in total there were 1,000 patients accommodated on the ship, of whom 120 died. However, soon after anchoring at Greenwich, the Thames Conservancy requested that the ships be moved immediately. So the Atlas and Endymion were moved 17 miles from London Bridge to Long Reach, where Castalia joined them.

The hospital ship Castalia, at Long Reach on the River Thames.

The hospital ship Castalia, at Long Reach on the River Thames.

Castalia was built with a double skeleton, which prevented rolling and hence sea-sickness. The three hospital ships were docked next to one another. While Atlas and Castalia served as the main centers for receiving patients, the former for males and the latter for females, Endymion was in between the two, with passages constructed to lessen the movement from one ship to another. Unlike the other two, Endymion served as both administrative center and a kitchen where the food for the patients was prepared.

Read another story from us: To raise funds Bedlam Asylum allowed, for a penny, public could stare at caged patients

After the smallpox outbreaks decreased, all three vessels were sold at an auction in 1904 for a total $10,681.