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September 23, 2023
Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox by Jonathan B. Tucker

Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, William J. Broad

Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World--Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It by Ken Alibek

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The War Against Smallpox David W. Tschanz, MSPH, PhD

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The New World

In November 1519 Hernando Cortes and his followers reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. At about the same time smallpox was introduced onto the mainland of the New World by an African slave named Francisico de Baguia. In the ensuing months smallpox spread throughout the Aztec empire, as Montezuma feted the Spaniards. By the summer of 1520, smallpox had reached the edge of Mexico's inland plateau. In September it reached the towns around the lakes in the Valley of Mexico. Then in October, Montezuma was killed by his own people, and the Aztecs, under the leadership of Montezuma's aggressive brother Cuitlahuac drove the Spaniards out of the city. In the wake of Cortes' retreat, smallpox entered the Aztec capital.

The Aztecs called it hueyzahuatl, "the great leprosy," because its victims were so covered with pustules that they looked like lepers. In its spread through the countryside the disease exerted a devastating impact on the populace who had no resistance to it whatsoever.

Tribute lists indicate the population of the Aztec Empire was 30 million in 1518. By 1568, Spanish officials estimated only 3 million remained. By 1620 the number had shrunk further to 1.6 million. No one knows how many truly died from smallpox and the other diseases that followed in its wake. The native Americans simply called it the "Great Dying."

Whatever the actual number of the dead smallpox was a catastrophe and of a scale far exceeding its earlier rampages on Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba. A Spanish friar, Fray Toribio Motolinia described the epidemic and its effect in graphic terms: " ...when the smallpox began to attack the Indians it became so great a pestilence among them throughout the land that in most provinces more than half the population died. For as the Indians did not know the remedy for the disease... they died in heaps, like bedbugs."

In Tenochitlan the disease raged for sixty days, killing by the cartload. One of its first victims was the new Emperor Cuitlahuac who had ruled Mexico for a total of four months. Two months later Cortes returned and took the great city amidst a raging smallpox epidemic that left so many dead he was forced to abandon his conquest for sixty days until the natural decomposition of the enormous numbers of dead had rendered the city fit to live in again.

The role of smallpox in the New World was far from over. From Mexico the disease spread south and north cutting a swath of destruction before it. It reached modern day Peru and took the life of the great Inca leader Huayna Chupauc, who had doubled the size of the Empire. The designated heir, Ninan Cuyoche, was dead by the time word of Huayna Chupuac's demise was brought to the Inca capital at Tumipampa. Huayna Chupuac's general Minacnacatamayta and several other officers also died. A war of succession broke out in the Inca Empire when Huascar was appointed Inca, then challenged by his illegitimate brother Atahualpa. A disastrous civil war broke out, lasting five years. Smallpox moved with the army and the civilians to spread thoughout he empire and materially aid the Spanish conquest.

The Inca Empire suffered a similar mortality as incomprehensible in its completeness as suffered by the Aztecs. Cieza de Leon, a Spanish chronicler wrote with simple eloquence of the sudden, awful emptiness in the land. "No testimony remains that the country had once been populated other than the great cemeteries... They asked Benalcazar how many Indians he found between Quito and Cartago, and they desired to know from me how many remain. Well, there are none. In a town that had a population of 10,000, there was not one person left."

Visitations of the disease in North America were no less devastating. In 1617-1619 smallpox wiped out nine-tenths of the Indian population along the Massachusetts coast. The epidemic fortuitously cleared a place for the first Pilgrims. Seven years earlier, the Narragansetts alone were said to be able to muster 3000 warriors, whereas Miles Standish and his companions found only a few straggling inhabitants, innumerable burial places, empty wigwams and some skeletons when they arrived at Plymouth in 1620. Surveying the aftermath Standish was frank in his appraisal "Smallpox was the blessing in disguise that gave (us) an opportunity to found the State."

Not only the natives suffered. In 1776 the American colonial army was driven from Montreal and hence, lost Quebec and all of Canada. The British army, outnumbered two to one, were variolated, the Americans were not and came down with smallpox. The epidemic that swept through the troops nearly wrecked the colonial cause.

In Europe smallpox wreaked havoc not only with the common man but with crowned heads as well. In 1712, the 70 year old Louis XIV, France's Le Roi del Soleil looked upon his son, grandson and great grandson and commented that in the history of France, the succession had never been so secure. The Sun King tempted fate.

Within eleven months all three were dead, having been Grand Dauphins of France and victims of smallpox one after another. In the process Bourbon claims to the Spanish throne were lost forever. The sole male heir that survived -- another great grandson -- was whisked away from Versailles by concerned servants and spared the ravages of disease. For Louis XV this rescue was merely a stay of execution. In 1774, after a reign of fifty years, another smallpox epidemic broke out in Versailles. Mistakenly believing that he had had the disease as an infant during the epidemic that had killed his brother, Louis refused to leave. Smallpox struck him down. His last words were "apres moi l'deluge," ("after me, the deluge"). Fifteen years later French resentment against the House of Bourbon smoldered into the Revolution.

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Discussion Boards on Chemical, Biological and Nuclear Weapons

The Latest Comment On This Topic:
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Plague Wars: The Terrifying Reality of Biological Warfare by Tom Mangold, Jeff Goldberg

Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak by Jeanne Guillemin

Combating Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Terrorism: A Comprehensive Strategy: A Report of the Csis Homeland Defense Project) by Frank J. Cilluffo, Sharon L. Cardash, Gordon Nathaniel Lederman


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