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. But the last person to die from smallpox was former Birmingham City Police staff member, 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. A professional association representative of Mrs Parker would later confirm that she had not received a smallpox vaccination for nine years.
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. When Janet Parker’s smallpox case became public knowledge, people were understandably anxious. The City offered vaccinations to anyone concerned of being infected, leading to unprecedented scenes of hundreds of people queueing for the smallpox jab. Approximately two thousand East Birmingham Hospital staff were vaccinated and plans were in place to vaccinate many more people if required.
Janet was placed into isolation at the Catherine de Barnes hospital, but she was not the only person placed there. Janet’s father, seventy-one year old Fred Witcomb , had also been admitted into Catherine de Barnes hospital a week after Janet, complaining of nausea. On 7th September, Janet’s mother Hilda was admitted into Catherine de Barnes isolation hospital too, when it was discovered that she had been infected with smallpox having caught it from Janet. On 14th September 1978, Central Public Health Laboratories in Colindale, North London, confirmed that Mrs Witcomb was suffering from Variola Major, the same strain of smallpox as her daughter. Hilda Witcomb had not become very ill and at the time her disease was confirmed, she was quite well. Janet’s husband Joseph remained isolated at home.
In total, some three-hundred people who had come into contact with Janet, either directly or indirectly, were quarantined in their own homes. This meant that they were completely isolated from the outside world and were reliant upon others for necessities, including their daily groceries. A very different experience from being in isolation today; with no smart phone, no internet and only a handful of TV channels to choose from. Janet’s father, who was not showing signs of the disease, became unwell while in isolation. Sadly, he collapsed and died of a heart attack on 5th September 1978.
While in Catherine de Barnes isolation hospital, Janet deteriorated. She contracted pneumonia and began to go blind in one eye. Janet even fell out of bed at one point as she tried to disconnect the hospital drip.
“Janet Parker’s life was slowly ebbing away. Apart from a small team of medics, she had been alone in a hospital isolation ward for two weeks. There was no loved one to hold her hand or hug her, or brush her hair. To whisper any words of consolation in her ear”.
When the 40-year-old Birmingham photographer died on 11th September 1978, ‘it was truly a blessing’. Janet’s illness had lasted for thirty days and she was the first person to die from smallpox for five years. Smallpox has been established as one of the most deadly diseases in human history. A smallpox outbreak could kill up to 30% of all those infected and it is believed to have claimed an estimated 500 million lives over the centuries. Public concern for such a killer disease was obviously great and even a year after the Janet Parker case, Birmingham MP, Mr Jeffrey Rooker said that the public must be kept informed of Professor Shooter’s inquiry into how the disease escaped. In 1976, Professor Shooter’s advisory group had confirmed Birmingham University’s laboratory as suitable for dealing with category ‘A’ viruses, despite concerns being raised as to the serviceability of air ducts and lack of airlock doors. That smallpox had even struck, was to the amazement of some as union leader Clive Jenkins suggested that Janet Parker lost her life as a result of an unauthorised experiment gone wrong. Birmingham University confirmed that the Pathogen Advisory Group and WHO had given them permission to conduct research on the virus for another year.
On 6th November 1979, Birmingham University was cleared of blame for Janet Parker’s death. Staff at the university’s virus laboratory had been working on a strain of the disease for which no known cure was available when it somehow escaped, infected and later killed Janet Parker. The eleven day trial failed to establish how the virus had escaped.
Professor Reginald Shooter’s report had asserted that practices in the laboratory had lapsed and concluded that the virus had probably escaped through air ducts and had infected Janet Parker working in the office above. The atmosphere around the time of the incident was fraught with distress;
‘Someone had to pay the price. There was anger amongst trade unions, there was concern in the public, there was near hysteria amongst the media as far as the incident was concerned. And someone had to foot the bill’.
That ‘someone’ was supervising Professor Henry Bedson who had committed suicide by cutting his own throat four days before Mrs Parker’s death, following criticism of the laboratory’s practices. Friends had claimed that Professor Bedson had become depressed while in quarantine and had blamed himself for the escape of the virus from the laboratory. Birmingham Coroner, Dr Richard Whittington was critical of the press and blamed them for Professor Bedson’s suicide, a claim vigorously denied by the National Union of Journalists.
The period of quarantine for those who had been in contact with Janet ended at midnight on 9th September 1978. Two other suspected smallpox cases, East Birmingham Virology Technician, Mrs Cheryl Hall aged twenty-three and ambulance driver, Miss Ann Whale aged thirty years, finally received the all clear a few days later.
On 10th October 1978, the Birmingham Daily Post announced that the Birmingham smallpox alert had finally ended as seventy year old, Mrs Hilda Witcomb, was released from medical surveillance the day before. Birmingham’s Medical Officer for environmental health, Dr Surinderjit Bakhshi said: ‘As far as I am concerned, the scare is now over’. His comments came as five quarantined nurses were also released.
The smallpox virus is now only stored in two laboratories; the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States and the Russian State Centre for Research on Virology and Biotechnology in the Russian Federation.
With today's pandemic having many chilling echoes of the 1978 scare, we believe it was important that Janet's tragic story was not forgotten.
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