The Balmis Expedition (1803–1806) was a three-year mission to the Americas led by Dr. Francisco Javier de Balmis with the aim of vaccinating millions against smallpox. Vaccination, a much safer way to prevent smallpox than older methods such as inoculation, had been introduced by the English physician Edward Jenner in 1798.Balmis was supported by King Charles IV of Spain, who had lost one of his own children to the disease.
The María Pita left the Spanish harbor of La Coruña on November 30, 1803, with the smallpox vaccination expedition team consisting of a director, Dr. Francisco Xavier Balmis; an assistant director, Dr. Jóse Salvany Lleopart; and several assistants and paramedics. The ship reached Puerto Rico in February 1804 with its cargo of vaccine serum preserved between sealed glass plates; also onboard were 21 children from the orphanage at La Coruña who carried the vaccine through arm-to-arm vaccinations performed sequentially during the ship’s journey, and thousands of copies of a treatise describing how to vaccinate and preserve the serum, recounts José Rigau-Pérez in an article on the smallpox vaccine in Puerto Rico.The use of orphaned boys as carriers of the live virus has been widely praised as ingenious, but I doubt a modern medical review board would approve. Plus I can't find out what happened to them. When the expedition sailed from Mexico to the Philippines they took along 25 Mexican orphans for the same purpose.
I can't find any estimate for the total number of people vaccinated, but here are some numbers: 100,000 in Mexico, 56,000 in Colombia; 7,000 in Quito, Ecuador; 3,500 in the Peruvian village of Loja. The expedition also tried to set up vaccination boards in each colony to continue their work, and they distributed thousands of copies of a pamphlet for doctors and officials on how to do it.
We are, these days, so down on imperialism and western meddling blah blah, for lots of good reasons. But we should never forget that the Enlightenment remade the world in many amazing ways.
It might also be topical to point out that by far the greatest medical triumph of the modern age, in terms of lives saved, is vaccination.