On this day in 2003, New Mexico librarian Susanne Caro opened an 1888 book on Civil War medicine and discovered a startling memento: an envelope of century-old smallpox scabs.
The 23-year-old librarian was tending the shelves at the College of Santa Fe’s Fogelson Library when she stumbled across a book on Civil War medicine written by Dr. W.D. Kelly, a physician who had done work on childhood vaccinations in the late 1800s. As she leafed through the book, Caro spied a small, yellow envelope tucked between the pages. She pulled it out and read the inscription: “scabs from vaccination of W.B. Yarrington’s children,” signed by “Dr. W.D. Kelly,” the book’s author. After some research, Caro determined not to open the envelope. “The only thing I could find connected with it,” she told the media, “was smallpox.”
Caro emailed the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland, the same day, asking “could these be dangerous?” and “Would the museum want them?” The answer was a resounding yes and within days two FBI agents were sent to Santa Fe to pick up the scabs–after questioning Caro whether anyone may have planted the material in the book. Though it was eradicated a generation ago, scientists sometimes worry smallpox could be used as a potentially devastating biological weapon. Caro assured the agents the material could not have been planted. The agents took the scabs, triple-bagged them, and sent the package to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an overnight mail package. There was a slim chance the scabs could have yielded live smallpox virus, of which only two laboratories in the world can claim. If so, the scabs would have led great insight to the evolution of the disease and a greater understanding of the smallpox vaccine.
In the late 1800s, pus or bits of scabs from smallpox patients were used in an early inoculation procedure. The scabs would have been implanted in the skin of healthy people as a sort of vaccine. Generally, after vaccination a patient would have a mild illness, but would be immune from the disease during their lifetime.