File This Under Sucks To Be You


Imagine you are a medical photographer at the University of Birmingham Medical School.  You go about your business day after day documenting patients and their medical conditions and head back to your darkroom to develop your prints.  It’s 1978, you’re young, all is right in the world.  Suddenly, you fall ill and develop a rash on your body.  No big deal, you think, everybody falls ill occasionally.  Only you get worse and are admitted to the hospital.  There, the doctors tell you, “You know that, perhaps, greatest achievement of the 20th century where we totally kicked smallpox’s ass and now it doesn’t exist anymore?  Yeah, well, it turns out it still does.  In you.  Surprise!”  Poor Janet Parker.

On September 11th, 1978, Janet Parker became the very last person on Earth to die of smallpox.  She didn’t work with it, but the hospital did and her darkroom just happened to be just above the laboratory where they were working with it.  It turns out that their containment procedures at the school were a little lax.  A few others close to Janet also contracted smallpox from her, but none of them died.  The sad part is that, thirteen years earlier, this exact same thing happened to another medical photographer that worked in the same darkroom!  That also resulted in a tiny outbreak, but no one died.

Oddly enough, the one thing that struck me the most about this is the name Janet Parker.  This was a woman!  There was a female medical photographer in 1978.  That has to be a bit of a rarity for back then, I would think.  Or maybe they were kind of the same thing as nurses back then.