Smallpox, inoculation and vaccination in New Spain

Smallpox was a disease that struck humanity over the centuries until its virtual eradication in the world in 1980, after intense vaccination campaigns.

By Archivo General de la Nación - México

Representación de la llegada de los españoles a tierras prehispánicas by AnonymusArchivo General de la Nación - México

Talking about the origins of smallpox is complicated because so far it is not known when and where on the planet it began. However, over time we have testimony about its ease of contagion and the fear generated by its symptoms.

Representación personas prehispánicas enfermas de viruela by AnonymusArchivo General de la Nación - México

His symptoms included the onset of a slight rash that quickly evolved into moderately sized pustules with pus, which when burst caused pain. These had an invasive faculty so violent that they could cause blindness, in addition to patients experiencing fever, headache and being in a state of prostration if the disease affected them too much.

Litografía de Hernán Cortés by AnonymusArchivo General de la Nación - México

Smallpox was restricted to the old continent until that changed with the period of conquest of America. In addition to the balances of the war in deaths, several affected by the new diseases that came into contact with the native population were also generated.

Representación de la llegada de los españoles a tierras prehispánicas by AnonymusArchivo General de la Nación - México

In 1520, among the population that landed with Pánfilo Narváez and his crew was Francisco Eguia, a slave sick with smallpox. This disease became crucial for the conquest of the territory since it spread rapidly among the indigenous people due to a series of factors such as no previous exposure to the virus.

Mapa de la Nueva España y Luisiana by AnonymusArchivo General de la Nación - México

Despite the defeat of the Mexica and the beginning of the colonial period, the disease did not stop, on the contrary, it spread rapidly throughout New Spain with which, in addition to generating numerous deaths, it became an endemic disease. The most aggressive outbreaks quickly turned into epidemics, with areas in the southeast constantly affected.

Informe al virrey Branciforte sobre el registró el fallecimientos por viruela (1797) by Cura de la parroquia de San PabloArchivo General de la Nación - México

The smallpox epidemic of 1797 was one of the most outstanding because it managed to enter the capital of the viceroyalty. The population feared this disease mainly because of the symptoms that manifested.


This epidemic wreaked great havoc on the lives of those people. For example, the viceroy, the Marquis of Branciforte, was informed that the priest of the parish of San Pablo recorded the death of 93 people from smallpox, whose bodies were buried in two different places, while another 22 people had contracted the disease. So restrictive measures such as quarantines and suspension of economic and social activities were implemented.

Reporte de fallecimientos por viruela (1797) by Parroquia de Santa Cruz AcatlánArchivo General de la Nación - México

The constant reports of deaths and burial places are in the patrimony protected by the General Archive of the Nation. An example is the notification made by the priest of the parish of Santa Cruz Acatlán for the fifteen deceased and their burial in San Lázaro and San Pablo in December 1797.

Informe al virrey Branciforte sobre el registró el fallecimientos por viruela (1797) by Cura de la parroquia de San PabloArchivo General de la Nación - México

Parishes were the main mechanism for organizing and attending to the epidemic. For example, the parish of San Miguel, in addition to reporting the daily death of children and adults, notified the death and burial of a maiden in its vicinity at the end of September 1797. Parishes were also one of the usual sites where victims were buried.

Informes de control y medidas de entierros de enfermos de viruela (1797) by Parroquia de la Santa VeracruzArchivo General de la Nación - México

In addition, several measures were taken to control the health emergency: the patron saint festivities were canceled, the sick and close people were isolated, the dead were quickly buried and any person or corpse with a rash was treated as infected. The documents of the parishes allow to know the progress of the disease, as well as the control and security measures, such as the letter of October 1797 of the parish of Santa Veracruz that informed the early burial of a two-month-old baby and a young man.

Carta que informa como trasladar los cadaveres de muertos por viruela (1797) by Parroquia de San PabloArchivo General de la Nación - México

Public awareness of the effects of the disease fueled fear. In 1797, the exposed corpse of a child caused intense panic in the face of a contagion. For this reason, the bodies of the deceased were transported with their faces covered and their hands with gloves in order not to reveal the disease for which they perished, as a letter addressed to the viceroy in August 1797 allows us to know.

Informe de muertos y enterrados por viruela (1797) by Eugenio José GarcíaArchivo General de la Nación - México

By October 1797, the epidemic reached such a magnitude that parishes lost the ability to process information. A letter from Eugenio José García, parish priest of Salto del Agua, lets us know that the disease continued without being able to assure the exact number of dead and buried. Therefore, the parish adopted the practice of ministering the Holy Viaticum of whatever sick they had knowledge, surely in the perspective of an assured death.

Informe de la Junta de Caridad para evitar la venta de ropa utilizada por los enfermos de viruela (1797)Archivo General de la Nación - México

To combat the pandemic, the viceregal government and the ecclesiastical authorities joined forces with sides, agreements and norms. The archbishop of Mexico constantly reported on the measures taken to deal with the epidemic and its ravages. One of them is noted in the letter that the archbishop sent to the viceroy in mid-November 1797 to inform that the Board of Charity sought to avoid the sale and pawning of clothes used by the sick.

Grabado en propaganda de vacuna contra la viruela (1804) by Gaceta de MéxicoArchivo General de la Nación - México

To address the epidemic, techniques were also implemented to strengthen the resistance of the bodies through inoculation, a measure prior to the development of the vaccine. It consisted of soaking a piece of sharp metal, similar to an arrow, with liquid of animal origin infected with smallpox. This generated a response similar to the disease, but to a lesser degree, which included papules.

Tabla de inoculaciones realizadas en la Ciudad de México. (1797)Archivo General de la Nación - México

Inoculation managed to decrease deaths and the spread of smallpox. In the main barracks of the capital an inoculation house was established as a report of September and October 1797 allows to know. By October 21, in addition to 1,908 sick and 98 dead, there were 728 inoculated distributed in the 8 barracks of the capital. But the inoculation had a drawback: being prepared with blood and pus, without optimal conservation conditions it spoiled, so infections developed and in some places favored the transmission of syphilis.

Escudo de Armas de la Isla Filipinas (1756) by AnonymusArchivo General de la Nación - México

The official origin of the vaccine is attributed to Edwar Jenner, who perfected the technique of variolization or inoculation to properly be considered as a vaccine. This consisted of pricking the skin with a small dose of the liquid of a lymph caused by the vaccination of an anterior arm, from which the arm-to-arm method emerged. Some time later, from the tragic death of the daughter of King Carlos IV, he was vaccinated in all the territories of the empire through "The royal philanthropic expedition of the vaccine" by Francisco Javier de Balmis.

Estudios sobre la vacunación de Francisco Javier de Balmis (1803) by Francisco Javier de BalmisArchivo General de la Nación - México

Materials and means to vaccinate were sent from Spain. Bovine fluid was transported and the children to whom the solution would be inoculated in order to better preserve the lymph in their arms. The road was difficult.

Estudios sobre la vacunación de Francisco Javier de Balmis (1803) by Francisco Javier de BalmisArchivo General de la Nación - México

Viceroy Miguel de la Grúa Talamanca was skeptical of the method, although he eventually gave in to its application. The campaign also faced outreach issues. In July 1811, Balmis mentioned to the Ciprián de Campeche the difficulty of vaccinating the central region of New Spain due to the amount of population, in contrast to the coastal area where it was easier.

Estudios sobre la vacunación de Francisco Javier de Balmis (1803) by Francisco Javier de BalmisArchivo General de la Nación - México

Balmis and his assistants were very disciplined and demanding of themselves to carry out the vaccination campaign. They delivered reports where they sought to encompass the problems and solutions they had found.

Estudios sobre la vacunación de Francisco Javier de Balmis (1803) by Francisco Javier de BalmisArchivo General de la Nación - México

This letter signed by Balmis mentions the starting point of the campaign, salaries, payments, use of personnel and uniforms. The result was the total success of the campaign.

Lista de vacunación de infantes (1803)Archivo General de la Nación - México

A further example of the efficiency-oriented rationality and commitment of the philanthropic expedition can be seen in the lists of vaccinated. In them, relevant information of the beneficiary population was recorded. This document of 1803 is a fragment of the vaccination list of infants, you can see the month, day, street, number of attended, some names and lineage in certain cases, as well as other observations. Thus, a precedent was established in vaccination reports.

Lista de vacunación de infantes (1803)Archivo General de la Nación - México

Another list with the information organized in the same way allows us to witness the great work that it represented to carry the vaccine through the viceregal territory. In this fragment we follow, like a kind of log, the itinerary of the expedition by recording the months elapsed and the number of vaccinated in each report. Vaccination has been central to the fight against disease over the centuries and the documentary heritage reminds us of humanity's effort to guarantee health and the care of life.

Credits: Story

Referencias documentales:
AGN, Biblioteca-Hemeroteca Ignacio Cubas, Sahagún, Bernardino de. Códice florentino. México. [s.n.] s.f. 091.72/S131c.
AGN, Biblioteca-Hemeroteca Ignacio Cubas, Riva Palacio, Vicente. México a través de los siglos. [s.l.] [s.n.] s.f. F/972/R6166m.
AGN, Archivos Gráficos, Colección Mapas Planos e Ilustraciones Registro: 0197.2f.
AGN, Instituciones coloniales, Epidemias, vol. 1, 841/3, exp. 3.
AGN, Instituciones coloniales, Epidemias, vol. 3, 842/8, exp. 8.
AGN, Archivos Gráficos, Colección Mapas Planos e Ilustraciones Registro: 3185.
AGN, Instituciones coloniales, Epidemias, vol. 3, 842/8, exp. 4.
AGN, Archivos Gráficos, Colección Mapas Planos e Ilustraciones Registro: 4886.
AGN, Instituciones coloniales, Epidemias, vol. 14.
AGN, Instituciones coloniales, Epidemias, vol. 16. 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
A Brief History of Vaccination
Centuries of life-saving science summed up
View theme
Google apps