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.

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