Historical and Archaeological Findings in News

Thomas Hickey’s 19th century painting on smallpox vaccination


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Smallpox vaccination in colonial India

Mains level: Not Much

A 19th-century portrait of three women from Mysore has been going viral as “one of the most important scientific pictures in the history of medicine in India”.

What did the portrait depict?

  • Believed to be painted in 1805 by Irish-born artist Thomas Hickey, the oil on canvas was initially thought to be portraits of “dancing girls or courtesans”.
  • The painting depicted one of the first vaccine drives in India, with bejewelled women from the Wadiyar dynasty posing for Hickey.
  • The canvas was commissioned to promote participation in the smallpox vaccination programme and the women posing with the scars.

What is smallpox?

  • Smallpox is an acute contagious disease caused by the variola virus, a member of the orthopoxvirus family.
  • It was one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity and caused millions of deaths before it was eradicated.
  • It is believed to have existed for at least 3000 years.

How and when did the smallpox vaccine reach India?

  • The smallpox vaccine, discovered by Edward Jenner in 1796, was the first successful vaccine to be developed.
  • On June 14, 1802, Anna Dusthall, an Anglo-Indian toddler, was the first person in India to be successfully vaccinated against the virus that relied on the cowpox virus, “a mild cousin of smallpox” to trigger immunity.
  • The “vaccine vesicle” that came on the arm of the receiver was a source of lymphatic fluid or pus that would act as a vaccine, leading to an arm-to-arm immunisation chain.
  • The vaccine subsequently travelled to different parts of India, including Hyderabad, Cochin, Madras and Mysore.

How was the drive carried out?

  • While the lymph was at times reportedly dried and sealed between glass plates to be transported, it often did not survive long journeys, due to which the British had to primarily rely on a human chain.
  • There was also opposition from the domestic population on the introduction of the cowpox virus and also because some believed the goddess of smallpox would be angered by the vaccination.
  • With Tipu Sultan defeated in Mysore, and the reinstatement of the Wadiyars, the East India Company was trying to strengthen its position in South India.
  • It protected the ex-pat population from an epidemic, making vaccination essential.
  • Queen Lakshmi Ammanni, who had lost her husband to smallpox, supported their cause and wanted to vaccine her population against the deadly virus.
  • The painting was supposed to encourage participation in the vaccination drive.

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