Study notes on chapter 9 of "The Power of Plagues"
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Smallpox, the Spotted Plague
In 1521, the subjects of the Aztec empire numbered in the millions.
Incredibly, Hernan Cortes, with fewer than 600 troops, was able to topple
On 21 August, the Spaniards stomed the city, only to find that a greater
force had ensured their victorySMALLPOX!
In 1520, an expedition led by Panfilo de Narvaez arrived from Spanish
Cuba. Among the crew was a smallpox-infected slave. From this initial
infection, smallpox spread from village to village throughout the Yucatan.
Only the Aztecs died; the Spaniards were left unharmed. It was this
perceived superior power of the god the Spaniards worship that led the
Aztecs and other Amerindians to accept Christianity.
Twelve years later, another Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, led a
group of 168 soldiers and captured Atahualpa.
Smallpox had arrived in Peru by land in 1526, killing much of the Inca
population. When Pizarro landed on the coast of Peru in 1531, the stage
for the Inca conquest had already been set; the smallpox epidemic that
had preceded the conquistadors had weakened the Inca Empire, there was
civil war, and Atahualpa’s army was vulnerable and disarray.
Smallpox was an Old World disease to which the New world Amerindians
had never been exposed, and against which they had no immunity.
Over the centuries, smallpox had killed hundreds of millions of people.
*Smallpox is indiscriminate.
It has been suggested that in Europe the use of makeup began among
wealthy survivors in order to hide smallpox-induced scars on their faces.
A look back
It is suspected that humans acquired the infectious agent from one of the
pox-liked diseases of domesticated animals, in the earliest concentrated
agricultural settlements of Asia or Africa when humans began to
maintain herds of livestock, some time after 10,000 BC.
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The best evidence of smallpox in humans is found in three Egyptian
From its origins in the dense agricultural valleys of the great rivers in
Africa and India, smallpox spread from the West to China, first appearing
about 200 BC.
Trade caravans assisted in the spread of smallpox, but at the time of the
birth of Christ it was probably not established in Europe.
Smallpox along with malaria, may have contributed to the decline of the
There are records of smallpox in the Korean peninsula, and it had reached
Japan by AD 585.
By AD 1000, smallpox was probably endemic in the more densely
populated part of Eurasia, from Spain to Japan, as well as in the African
countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea.
The movement of people to and from Asia Minor during the Crusades in
th and 13th centuries helped reintroduce smallpox to Europe.
Smallpox was serious disease in England and Europe in the sixteenth
Besides the crucial role in the Spanish conquest in the New World,
smallpox also contributed to settlement of North America by the French
Blankets were deliberately contaminated with scabby material from
smallpox pustules and delivered to the Indians, initiating the spread of
the disease among those highly susceptible people.
Slaves also brought smallpox to the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
The disease of Smallpox
The cause of smallpox is a virusone of the largest virusesand with
proper illumination it can actually be seen with the light microscope.
The outer surface (capsid) of the smallpox virus resembles the facets of a
The virus has about 200 genes, 35 of which are believed to be involved in
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