Bioethics Blogs

Never Ending Stories: Narrating Frozen Evidence of Infectious Epidemics Past by Joanna Radin

Early Elegy: Smallpox
by Claudia Emerson

  • The world has certified itself rid of
  • all but the argument: to eradicate or not
  • the small stock of variola frozen,
  • quarantined—a dormancy it has
  • refused, just once, for a woman behind a sterile
  • lens, her glass slide a clearest, most
  • becoming pane. How could it resist slipping
  • away with her, that discrete first pock?


In 1979, public health officials announced the eradication of smallpox. This achievement was more than just an impressive demonstration of mass vaccination. It represented the ability of nations locked in a frigid Cold War to unite against a common enemy. From this point on smallpox became a prisoner of war, held hostage in the laboratory freezer or, to be more specific: two laboratory freezers. In 1984 the World Health Organization decided that only two entities could provide sufficient security to maintain freezers filled with scabs and cells that harbored smallpox: a Siberian lab called Vector in Novosibirsk and the other at the CDC in Atlanta.

The decision to allow two superpowers, the USSR and the US, to stockpile microbes as well as missiles provided cold comfort to experts concerned about germ warfare. Not only was there concern that one nation might choose to deploy smallpox as a weapon of mass destruction, there was also fear that the very idea that smallpox had been contained in two freezers was itself a fiction.

In 1987, virologist Frank Fenner asked members of the World Health Assembly to entertain the various ways in which smallpox could still reemerge to wreak havoc on humankind.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.