I overhead a young boy on the train the other day asking their mother why ‘old people’ had circular scars on their upper arms. As one of those people, I never ever think about it but it must seem strange to people born in the 1980s and after.
It is a smallpox vaccination scar. My mother told me that the scar showed that it had ‘taken’, though this was probably an old wives’ tale.
After smallpox was virtually eradicated, this vaccination was no longer given, which is kind of scary considering that the smallpox virus remains in laboratories around the world for research purposes. If the smallpox virus was stolen and spread, not many people would be protected from infection.
After the vaccination, blisters forms at the vaccination area, crusted over, and healed in a couple of weeks. At the end it leaves a round scar.
To deliver the vaccine, a bifurcated needle was dipped into the Vaccinia solution and the individual’s arm was poked several times. A small amount of the vaccine was deposited each time the needle broke the skin and blisters formed. This explains why the scars are so large.
Right after the vaccine there is a small swelling at the vaccination site which persists for 6-8 hours. Then, the swelling disappears and the vaccination site looks normal. 6-8 weeks later a swelling appears again which looks like a mosquito bite. It starts to grow and forms a nodule which breaks open and discharges some fluid and forms an ulcer. The ulcer heals by forming a scar. This entire process takes 2-5 weeks. There are times when this process of ulceration and healing recurs 2-3 times. The formed scar remains for lifetime.
Smallpox was no longer present in most of the Western world after the early 1970’s, so vaccination wasn’t needed unless a person was travelling to a country where the virus was still present.
The Variola virus was certified to have been eradicated from the world’s population in 1980’s and this smallpox vaccination was stopped completely.
Historian Jennifer Keelan says a vaccine scar was a way to prove you weren’t a threat to your family and community.
“It was literally like wearing a vaccination record right on your arm,” Keelan said. “The more prominent the more clear—in some cases they thought the more discrete the scars there were–the better indication that you actually were protected from smallpox.”
Keelan writes about smallpox epidemics and teaches in the Department of Public Health at Concordia University of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
To stop smallpox, the United States and other countries inspected immigrants at the border.
Smallpox is highly contagious, but Keelan says it’s a somewhat apocryphal story often told over and over in the middle of a smallpox scare: “It always comes from away. They come in by train with a bit of a fever, and they land smack dab in the middle of your city, they infect thousands of people and then your entire city is overthrown by this epidemic.”
Countries also passed compulsory vaccine laws for citizens.
“Public health officials and local police would ask people to roll up their sleeves before they entered schools, before they entered factories, before they boarded trains or ships,” said Michael Willrich, a Brandeis University professor whose book is “Pox: An American History.”
“In tenement districts in American cities, vaccination squads would go through during epidemics and check people for vaccination scars, and if they didn’t have them, often vaccinated them against their will,” Willrich said.