Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Speckled Monster: the eradication of smallpox

Since the spring of 2006, I have supplied scientific advice and ideas to a collaboration between the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and Thinktank, with the aim of creating a play and museum trail to improve understanding and appreciation of science among 14-plus school students. Early on I suggested the eradication of smallpox as an example of the triumph of the forces of science, reason and international collaboration over one of humankind's most fearful adversaries and I am pleased to say that the playwright, Jenny Stephens, and the rest of the team took up the idea with enthusiasm. 

Another trigger was the local connection--the eradication of smallpox began with the experiments of Edward Jenner, less than seventy miles from Birmingham down the M5 motorway in the Gloucestershire village of Berkeley. Sadly, the last cases of the disease, photographer Janet Parker and her mother Hilda Whitcomb, resulted from laboratory-acquired infection in 1978 in my own university, with a tragic outcome that saw the death of Parker from smallpox and the death by suicide of the virologist, Henry Bedson,who was  responsible for the laboratory from which she caught the disease. Although we held on to Jenner in our fictionalised account of the eradication of smallpox, in the end we dropped the Birmingham connection, sensitive to the feelings of friends and relatives of Parker and Bedson, several of whom are still alive. [see Hugh Pennington's account of laboratory-acquired smallpox in the UK].

We were fortunate to secure funding from the Wellcome Trust and this weekend our efforts culminated in the first public performance of "The Speckled Monster" (more info here). The play will be performed to groups of school children during the week and two performances will be open to the public (at 12.00 and at 15.00) every Saturday until 4th October. 

I attended the opening performance yesterday with my own children and I was delighted to see how wonderfully our collective ideas had been turned into reality by the playwright, Jenny Stephens, and by the actors and production team. The sets and lighting were great, the acting superb and the play hit just the right tone of poignant triumphalism. I filmed a few snippets of the play and uploaded them on to YouTube, but I have been asked to take them down at least for now, until we have copyright permission from the actors and playwright (would have thought they would appreciate the publicity!).

If you live in or close to Birmingham, please make the effort to come and see this remarkable show, particularly if you have children of  your own. 

And if you think smallpox is a little off topic for a blog centred on evolution, it is worth stressing that 
  • Charles Darwin's grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood was crippled by the disease, always walking with a limp.
  • Darwin's own correspondence contains several references to smallpox in Brazil, Britain and even in his own village of Down
  • Darwin mentions the topic in several of his books.
  • The evolution of the smallpox virus remains a lively research topic. Here is a figure illustrating the origins and spread of the virus from a recent PNAS paper:

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