Smallpox vaccination scars

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.

Smallpox was eradicated by 1979 and samples of it remain only in two highly guarded laboratories. Apparently this is to help in researching similar viruses, and also in the event of biological warfare, if there needs to be live samples to test better vaccines.The vaccine is no longer given, which is kind of scary considering that 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.

This photograph shows a vaccinated person on the right, and someone with smallpox on the left.

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.


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

7 thoughts

  1. as sad as your story is, and I understand because I have a retarded child on the one year level, there must be thousands or millions of children who did well for every one like your son. I have been vaccinated for many things and I think I am healthier for it. My children had chicken pox, no big deal, until in their forties got shingles, which was scary. I am now waiting for my handicapped child to get old enough for the vaccine against shingles. Nothing is perfect, not even vaccines but they are better than no vaccine.

  2. My sisters and I all had vaccine shots, they have the scar, I do not. Can’t tell I ever got one, but I remember getting it, my sister got a really big scar from hers. I can’t tell where I got it, never had a scar from it. It healed really well. Does that mean I was never protected if it didn’t leave a scar?

    1. I think you were protected. My cousin went swimming right after her shot and she never had a scar either, but the doctor said she was protected.

  3. I’m sure I’m going to get “hate” comments… but I have been living 23 years of quite a different life. My son is 23 – and has been vaccine damaged. I have spent the last 22 years researching vaccines. What I have found out is horrible. I have a very strong opinion of vaccinations. If I would have known…. If I would have researched…. my son would not be living in hell. He was a typical baby – I have video of him saying mama – pointing – … the night after his MMR vaccination (mumps measles rubella) – he had 107 fever and woke up brain dead the next day. He is dxd with severe autism, profound mental retardation, traumatic brain injury, seizure disorder, feeding/sleeping disorder and has an immune disorder (he has been sick for approx 90% of his life). If I only knew what I know today – I wouldn’t have done it.. I wouldn’t have given any vaccinations!!!! None!!! He is nonverbal – cannot feed himself, dress himself, bathe, nor wipe himself after a bowel movement. I never thought I would be a full time caregiver for 23 years – unable to leave my own house because of a vaccination. This is one topic that is so near and dear to my heart – it stole my sons life…. He will never ever understand language higher than a 12 month level. He will never ever go on a first date, or even have a friend. Please for any new parents out there – research – just look at the vaccine insert – look at the ingredients …. be careful…. I would much rather him have measles and chicken pox vs a lifetime full of pain.

    1. you dont understand… at all. 22 years of research? it sounds like 22 years of “what ifs”. otherwise, youd know hes lucky to be alive because of that vaccine. it wouldnt be chickenpox. measles, etc. as we know it today. if you dont get a vaccine, theres diseases you may think are trivial to die from that can claim your life. that is why we vaccinate. would you prefer a retarded baby or a dead one? dont resent your son for being in the small percentage to get an adverse effect from a vaccine. hes a small percentage, it’s inevitable. adverse effects will always exist. in the meantime maybe widen your mind and think of all the people across the world saved by these revolutionary vaccines. im sorry for your son. it wasnt his fault. its just how our bodies are built. sometimes these things just dont go over how we wish they would. a fever that high, maybe you shouldve taken him to the doctor?

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