Smallpox, Confucius and The Fountain of Youth- Trivia From Books Read This Week.

At least once a day, I read something that amazes me. So far this week I have said, “Wow!” to the following.

1. The smallpox virus originated in camels.

"Sloughing lip following smallpox" source: londonbygaslight

According to Nathan D. Wolfe in his terrifying book The Viral Storm, smallpox was likely the world’s first pandemic. Most pandemics today are caused by viruses that have made the leap from animals to humans: HIV, SARS, bird flu and swine flu to name a few.

The variola virus, which causes smallpox, had been killing and scarring people in the Old World for many thousands of years before it made the jump to the New World, which it devastated. The virus is now thought to have originated in camels in the near middle east and made the jump to humans via rodents, where it cleverly mutated and emerged in its endemic form about 3000 years ago. Pharoah Ramses V likely suffered from smallpox. The virus killed, on average, 30% of the people it infected. The prognosis varied however depending on which strain you had caught. Haemorrhagic smallpox killed 100% of those infected and flat-type smallpox killed 90% or more, while fatality rates for variola minor come in at only 1%.

For those who survived, there was almost always scarring. Very often those who survived were left blinded by damage to their corneas. I have a few blind relatives in my family tree and I wonder if they were affected by smallpox or born to syphilitic parents (a bacterial infection that in its congenital form often blinded sufferers). Wonderings aside, smallpox is now extinct and has been officially so since 8 May 1980. We no longer vaccinate against it although there are two sites in America where live smallpox virus is still kept. I sincerely hope under lock and key.

2. Confucius say, “I am your father” or was that Darth Vader?

A quote from the terminally smart John Lloyd and John Mitchinson’s book QI The Book of The Dead:

“Go back ten generations and each of us has a thousand direct relatives, go back fifteen and the number soars to more than 35 000 (and that’s not counting uncles and aunts). In fact, we need only go back to 1250 to have more direct relatives than the number of humans beings who have ever lived. The solution to this apparent paradox is that we’re all inter-related: the further back you go, the more ancestors we are likely to share. The earliest common ancestor of everyone alive on the planet today is related both to Confucius (551-479 BC) and to Nefertiti (1370-1330 BC).”

3. Chimpanzee testicles were grafted onto human ones in the 1920s to improve vitality and virility.

Again from Nathan Wolfe‘s, Viral Storm:

Dr Serge Voronoff source: Wikipedia

In the 1920s Russian-born surgeon, Serge Abrahamovich Voronoff (1866 – 1951) grafted chimpanzee testicles onto human testicles to slow the ageing process. Early in his career, Voronoff had worked for the King of Egypt and had noticed that the King’s eunuchs appeared more youthful than their non-castrated brethren. Not too many men however were keen on being castrated to preserve their youth. As a surgeon though and captivated by the new science of organ transplantation, Voronoff began to experiment. His patients swore by his techniques, showing off their muscles and hinting at their new prowess in the boudoir. Before he was denounced as a quack, Voronoff had performed thousands of so-called monkey gland surgeries and made himself a fortune.

At the time, it was rumored that Pablo Picassso had the monkey gland operation although this is now largely discounted.

Well, how about that!


9 thoughts on “Smallpox, Confucius and The Fountain of Youth- Trivia From Books Read This Week.

  1. I was looking at some of your posts on this website and I think this website is very informative! Keep posting.

  2. Interesting about smallpox. My grandson just had chicken ..pox last week – very spotty and feeling quite ill. I remarked on FB how awful smallpox must have been and my daughter found a photo of a child with it. Terrible. Then we were wondering whether it is completely extinct and whether the virus had been destroyed or still kept. Now we know! Thank you.
    In my posting on Charles Mann’s 1491, I noted hoe extra deadly smallpox was to native Americans, who had no previous exposure.

    • Pleasure 🙂 In the book (Viral Storm) the author spoke about an incident where an envelope containing smallpox scabs was intercepted and destroyed quite recently. I think it was in Mexico. I don’t remember the details exactly but it was assumed that a terrorist organisation had ordered them. A terrifying thought!

      I hope your grandson is starting to recover. My son had the pox a while back. As he had had the vaccination his case wasn’t severe, but he was thoroughly miserable nonetheless.

      • Thank you. My grandson is in England and they don’t routinely vaccinate against it there ( weighing benefits and harms which apparently would include more shingles in older people). I like the idea of a bookseller with a deep interest in history. I will be visiting your blog.

      • We looked up latest incidences of smallpox on wikipedia. 1978. And the scabs were found in a book about Civil War History in New Mexico ( which is a state in the U.S.A. What did we do before wikipedia!
        I also write my blog as a journal of my own reading and musing, but it is fun when others read and comment.

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