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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

When Doctor Balmis vaccinated thousands of people in Tenerife against smallpox

The María Pita, a ship chartered for the expedition, departing from
the port of La Coruña in 1803 (engraving by Francisco Pérez).

Santa Cruz de Tenerife was the first port to which the Balmis Expedition arrived in 1803, the great international sanitary operation that Spain promoted to bring the smallpox vaccine to the Spanish Empire. It spent a month in the capital city, vaccinating thousands of people.

El barco de la viruela: La escala de Balmis en Tenerife
The Ministry of Defense has named "Operation Balmis against SARS-CoV-2" the deployment of the Armed Forces to fight SARS-CoV-2 responsible for Covid-19, in a tribute to the Balmis Expedition or "Royal Philanthropic Expedition of the Vaccine", which took place between 1803 and 1806.

What was that expedition? It was the first international operation of a sanitary and humanitarian nature, proposed to King Carlos IV by the Spanish doctor and military surgeon Francisco Javier de Balmis y Berenguer in order to bring the smallpox vaccine to the  Spanish Empire to save hundreds of thousands of lives, especially children. It would be Carlos IV himself who would pay for it.

In order for the vaccine to withstand the long journey, Balmis took a group of orphaned children under the age of 10 as a natural reservoir, as they were inoculated with the vaccine, in order to extract the fluid from the pustules that formed (in what was called the "serial method "). In this way, thousands of people residing in the different territories of the Spanish Empire could be inoculated.

Isabel Zendal is recognized as the first nurse in history to take part in an international mission by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The expedition, on board the corvette "María Pita" (name of the heroine who had defended La Coruña from the English invasion of 1589), set sail from the port of that city on November 30, 1803 with Balmis (who would take advantage to study medicinal plants in the regions they visited) at the head and two auxiliary doctors, two practitioners, three nurses and the director of the Casa de Expósito (home for abandoned children) in La Coruña, Isabel Zendal, who would be responsible for the care of the 22 children on board.


The first port that the aforementioned expedition reached was that of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where it spent a month vaccinating thousands of people and from where it left for America on January 6, 1804.

Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, all the territory known at that time as New Spain that included Mexico, California and Texas; the Philippines, China and the island of Saint Helena (although she was British), were the main regions where the procedure would be carried out.

The expedition carried 2,000 copies of the "Practical and Historical Vaccine Treaty" by the French physician and anatomist Moreau de Sarthe to distribute to the different vaccination commissions that were created in each place, so that they could learn and continue with the vaccination process.

The Balmis expedition was, without a doubt, the first and one of the greatest milestones in history of preventive and social medicine and public health that any country has ever carried out, saving the lives of thousands of people who, without it, would have died, although, even today it is unknown by many people in the country.

Cuando Balmis vacunó a miles de personas en Tenerife contra la viruela

Other references:
La vacuna de la viruela en Santa Cruz
ISABEL ZENDAL: la enfermera que ayudó a erradicar la viruela
Documental sobre la biografía del Dr. Balmis



22 Ángeles: Dramatisation of the story of the Balmis Expedition [in Spanish]

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