The Birth and Death of Smallpox

Author: Sue McCombie (University of Arizona)

  • The Birth and Death of Smallpox


    The Birth and Death of Smallpox



Since the beginning of human existence, the evolution of disease has closely followed the evolution of culture. A complex feedback relationship exists between humans and the pathogenic organisms in their environment. Disease has been a powerful selective force, acting on human biology as well as culture. By the same token, human behaviors have been selective agents in disease evolution because cultural practices influence exposure to and transmission of all infectious diseases. Smallpox is an excellent example of these interactions for several reasons. Its related high mortality rate imposes selection pressure on human biology, Its effect on culture and history is virtually immeasurable, The role of smallpox in decimating American Indian populations during conquest is one example of this effect (McNeill, 1976:209). Because smallpox is a uniquely human disease, the variola virus is viable only in the human organism, making it very sensitive to characteristics of human biology and behavior. Finally, its eradication graphically illustrates the power of human practices to be selective agents in the evolution of disease.

Keywords: Smallpox

How to Cite: McCombie S., (1982) “The Birth and Death of Smallpox”, Atlatl 3.

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Published on
01 Jan 1982
Peer Reviewed