In 1967, the year Sgt. Pepper came out, it killed two million people, more than were killed in the entire eighteen years of the Vietnam War.
In 1948, the year it was founded, the World Health Organization estimated that smallpox was infecting fifty million people per year, and in some regions killing as many as a third of them, and leaving millions of survivors blind.
So smallpox killed more people in the twentieth century than the World Wars put together, two or three times over.
It had been with us since the beginning of civilization and perhaps longer. It made no distinction for rank or social station. It killed Ramses V, Pharaoh of ancient Egypt. It may have killed Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor. It nearly killed Elizabeth I of England, fourteen hundred years later. It did kill Tsar Peter II of Russia in 1730, and the Emperor Komei of Japan in 1867, and the Emperor T’ung Chih of China in 1875. Abraham Lincoln contracted an unusually mild case after giving his famous Gettysburg Address. He survived, but not before passing it on to a White House servant, who did not.
The infected suffered fever, damage to their internal organs, and above all the hideous eruptions – the pox – that covered the body and burst. For hundreds of generations, millions were powerless before it. They prayed and died; died wondering why their gods had abandoned them and were punishing them. When Europeans introduced it to the New World at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century it tore through the indigenous people. Thousands of years of isolation from the rest of the human race had left them without so much as a shred of resistance to it; it shattered their social cohesion at exactly the historical moment when they needed it most to resist the invaders. They prayed and they died.
It killed and it killed, for ten thousand years or more. And then it was gone. Two million people in 1967. None at all ten years later, and not a single solitary human being since. Not one. It had been in decline in parts of the world for nearly two centuries, but had persisted in spite of progress for a long time, mainly because people – who are by nature not rational – superstitiously and irrationally feared the cure more than the disease. But in the end reason triumphed. And how was this ancient scourge, this killer among killers, this dread disease that the Aztecs called the Great Fire, finally overcome?
Not with prayer. Not by strengthening our immune system in "natural" ways with herbs or homeopathy. Not with chiropractics or chi kung.
No, they wiped it out, eradicated it from the face of the Earth, the good old-fashioned way.