Episode 469 – The Vaccinators, Part 1

This week: the elimination of smallpox is probably one of the greatest medical accomplishments in human history. The vaccine that made it possible, however, was invented during a time of isolation for Japan. So how did the vaccine make it to Japanese shores, and what does that story tell us about public health, the sharing of information, and the nature of society in late feudal Japan?


Suzuki, Akihito. “Smallpox and the Epidemiological Heritage of Modern Japan: Towards a Total History.” Medical History 55, No 3 (July, 2011).

Janneta, Ann. The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan.


The great Buddha at Todaiji. The temple was constructed in the aftermath of the 735 smallpox epidemic, the first in Japanese people and which killed almost a third of the population on the islands.
A home with a shrine to a smallpox demon intended to protect their child. From the Hoso Kokoroegusa, a text on medicine published in 1798.
Print from the early Meiji period by Sensai Eitaku, showing a woman defeating a smallpox demon by wearing red.
Minamoto no Tametomo, a great hero of Japan’s medieval past, shown here fighting a smallpox demon. By Yoshitoshi, c 1890.
A Japanese medical text from 1720 depicting smallpox infection.

1 thought on “Episode 469 – The Vaccinators, Part 1”

  1. That’s so interesting you’re going over this since I recently finished an anime called Hidamari no Ki, based on Osamu Tezuka’s manga, whose central plot is based around Tezuka’s real great grandfather Ryoan Tezuka trying to set up a bakufu-approved smallpox vaccination clinic in Tokyo during the Bakumatsu. His biggest enemies are the traditional medicine practitioners who want to ban western medicine and the people spreading rumors that the vaccine will turn you into a cow. Ryoan’s foil is a fictional Fuchuu shishi who gets involved with Saigo Takamori. You should look into it. It covers all the great historical events of the bakumatsu like the cholera outbreak, the Ansei Purges, and the Ansei Earthquake.

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