Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how much shit humans have lived through.

Rio de Janeiro Smallpox Epidemics of 1904 and 1908

A couple years back, I was thinking to myself, no other people on earth are so obsessed with “freedom” that they would demand the freedom to die of covid-19.

Joke’s on me, Americans aren’t so special.

Smallpox had been in Rio since 1568. It was no new thing. There had been smallpox vaccines available since 1810. Smallpox vaccine began to be produced in Rio in 1846.


In the summer of 1904, people in Rio began to die of smallpox by the hundreds.

Enter Oswaldo Cruz. Cruz was the director of public health under President Francisco Rodriguez Alves. They had led the fight against bubonic plague, yellow fever, and smallpox.

Oswaldo Cruz, director of public health, and guy I’d let buy me a drink.

They had smallpox vaccine in Rio, and they very much wanted people to be vaccinated.

However, some Brazilians rebelled at the thought of required vaccines. Word on the street was that the vaccine would kill you, not smallpox. It’s so depressingly familiar, lols.

The Vaccine Revolt of 1904. There was some racist imagery at right, so I removed it with this bizarre smear.

Now in the anti-vaxxers defense, police and medical professionals were going to break into people’s homes and forcibly vaccinate them. So it’s a lot more aggressive than “you can’t go to this concert without your vaccination card.”

Also it was 1904, not 2020. Vaccines were becoming accepted, but hadn’t been around that long.

Also people were likely less familiar with the medical establishment in general, particularly people in grinding poverty.

Indeed the people of Brazil who were poor had been kicked around and lied to for a long time, so they didn’t trust The Man. Which was a reasonable response that sadly led them down a dangerous path.

Vaccination efforts were not in vain: around 50,000 people got vaccinated against smallpox that summer.

On the other hand, about 3,500 people died of smallpox.

When Cruz got a law passed that made the smallpox vaccine mandatory, some people, including members of the Brazilian military, responded by taking to the streets and raising hell, breaking and burning and taking various things. Factory workers and trade unionists unfortunately worked against vaccination requirements, squandering their unity on the wrong cause.

When things calmed down, hundreds of the people who had acted against the vaccine requirement were sent to prison on “Isle of the Snakes,” which sounds pretty bad.

By 1908, a lot of people had decided maybe getting the vaccine was a good idea. This could have been because they saw family and friends die of the disease. There were 13,000 people who died in the smallpox outbreak in Rio.

And here’s the twist: President Alves died in the flu epidemic of 1919.

Rodrigues Alves 3.jpg
Francisco Rodriguez Alves, president of Brazil who tried to get people vaccinated, and brought you this grim smile to show you how serious he is about having fun.

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