Living with Smallpox in Early Modern Britain

Photo credit: Alex Boyd.

In the two centuries prior the advent of vaccination, early modern Britons lived in the shadow of a viral disease which often left death, blindness, or pockmarked survivors in its wake. Contrast this, if you will, to the dawn of 2020, when another invisible adversary brought Britain, along with the rest of the world, to an abrupt halt - coronavirus, COVID-19.

“How we respond not only to acute, infectious disease but also to the chronic after-effects are now very topical,” says socio-cultural historian, Dr Mark Dawson who, for the next three years will consider the contest over inoculation from the early eighteenth century – the insertion of smallpox matter under the skin to bring about (hopefully milder) infection.

“Epidemic smallpox would have catastrophic consequences for First Nations in the Americas and Australasia. However, in early modern Britain, where smallpox became endemic, about two-thirds of Britons survived infection – though many not without debility of various kinds,” Dr Dawson explains.

By examining letters, diaries, memoirs, household recipe-books, sermons, physicians’ case-notes, parish and court records of individuals and the families who suffered smallpox during this time, Dr Dawson will learn more about its effects, and something of their responses to it. These details will also be unveiled in period publications, especially health guides and early newsprint advertising.

With these works kept safe at various archives in the UK and US, it’s wonderful news that Professor Dawson has been awarded a short-term fellowship at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on top of his successful DP23 grant of $182,598.00 –helping fund two extensive research trips scheduled during the next 12-18 months. With an aim to complete the project by late 2026.

The parallel between the smallpox epidemic that plagued Britain in the early eighteenth century and the COVID-19 pandemic that struck in 2020 underscores the ongoing relevance of understanding the historical responses to infectious diseases. It’ll enhance knowledge of the emergence of modern techniques for managing public health.



Mark Dawson joined the ANU as associate lecturer in 2005. He has published on a variety of subjects relating to social inequality, health, and the human body, most notably Gentility and the Comic Theatre of Late Stuart London (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Bodies Complexioned: Human Variation and Racism in Early Modern English Culture, c. 16001750 (Manchester University Press, 2019).