The Last but not Forgotten

In 1967 the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched an intensive plan to eradicate smallpox globally. This plan was underpinned with an immunisation and surveillance campaign that saw the last natural smallpox case in Somalia in 1977. The WHO declared smallpox eradicated from global circulation in 1980, and it is the only infectious disease to have achieved this status[1]. But the last person to die from smallpox was former Birmingham City Police staff member, Janet Parker.

Janet Parker - the last person to die from Smallpox
Janet Parker

After finishing her education at grammar school, Janet, born in Birmingham in 1938, settled into photography and began working for Birmingham City Police. She became well known around the local courts for presenting her photographic evidence[2]. Janet had married Post Office engineer Joseph Parker in 1965 and they settled in Kings Norton, Birmingham, not too far from her parents, Fred and Hilda Witcomb who resided in Myrtle Avenue. She eventually moved on from the police becoming a medical photographer at Birmingham University as she wanted more regular hours. Janet, described as a pleasant and intelligent lady, had also begun studying with the Open University to better herself[3]. In 1978, Janet’s office was located above Professor Henry Bedson’s smallpox laboratory at Birmingham University Medical School.

On one Friday in August of 1978 Janet Parker began to feel unwell, but she still went to work. She began to exhibit the typical signs of a flu-like illness. Over the next few days her condition worsened and at least three different doctors attended her bedside. Her parents were so worried about Janet’s condition that she went to stay with them in Myrtle Avenue. There, she was seen by her parents’ GP[4]. An ambulance was called and informed of a possible infectious case. Ambulance driver, John Richmond, later described how Janet’s body was covered in wart-like spots and that she was unable to stand. On 24th August, Janet was taken to East Birmingham Hospital where doctors were at that time unsure of her illness[5].

In a suspected case of smallpox, an expert in the field would be called to examine the patient but a definitive diagnosis would have been made by examining skin lesion scrapings under an electron microscope. In twist of fate, the on-call laboratory expert that day was Professor Henry Bedson, the man in charge of Birmingham University’s laboratory that housed and experimented on the smallpox virus. Having examined the samples taken from Janet, Professor Bedson confirmed that it was a case of smallpox. Learning that Janet worked at the University, he then made the chilling link that the smallpox virus that had infected Janet had somehow escaped from his laboratory[6]. A professional association representative of Mrs Parker would later confirm that she had not received a smallpox vaccination for nine years[7].

University of Birmingham Medical School, showing the windows of the virology laboratory on the ground floor and the office windows of Janet Parker's office above
University of Birmingham virology laboratory (ground) & offices above where Janet worked (credit: Graham Beards)

Smallpox had not been seen in the country for many years. The disease was prevalent in the early 1960s and to cope with the then contagion, isolation hospitals had been set up in Witton, a suburb of Birmingham and in Catherine de Barnes, near Solihull