29 December 2009
Smallpox In America
The diseases that the Europeans brought to America -- syphilis, smallpox, measles, mumps, and bubonic plague -- caused greater mortality to the native Americans than to the Europeans because they were "virgin soil" diseases to which the Americans had no immunity. In trying to imagine the fear and devastation that a smallpox epidemic must have caused, I first thought of our recent panic over swine flu as a present-day comparison, but the horrifying symptoms of smallpox (high fever and vomiting followed by painful blistering rash and lesions in the nose and mouth) and mortality rate were far worse than anything we contemporary U.S. citizens have seen in our lifetimes except maybe for AIDS. I imagine that the dread that spread through native communities would be more akin to the dread that spread through the AIDS-stricken gay community in the 1980s.
my version of smallpox virus, second overprint
Obviously, these native American epidemics were unintentional consequences of the first contact between two previously isolated cultures, but by the 1700s some colonists began to use the diseases to their own advantage. There are several stories of smallpox being used as an early form of biological warfare. One of the best documented instances of the smallpox-on-blankets story is the case of Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America during the French and Indian War (1756-'63). In a letter to a military colleague, Amherst wrote, "You will Do well to try to Innoculate the Indians by means of Blanketts, as well as to try Every other method that can serve to Extirpate this Execrable Race."
Lord Jeff didn't like Indians very much.
my version of smallpox virus, third overprint
I "reduced" the red block twice to create this figure that suggests the shape of the smallpox virus with its outer tubules. Next up is some pretty intensive carving for two more elements for the print, so I probably won't blog again until 2010. Happy New Year!