In recent weeks, unfortunately and for extraordinary reasons, we have become accustomed to hearing the term “Operation Balmis”, the largest military operation, deployed in peacetime, to try to curb and control the accursed Covid-19. But why was it called Balmis, who was Balmis, what did he do?
It turns out that at the end of the 18th century, the British Edward Jenner, who can be considered the father of immunology, observed that smallpox pus from cows did not affect the peasant women who milked them. He then began his research and mixed the fluids to see the effect. This is how he discovered the vaccine (coming from cows) against smallpox, the disease that was ravaging the world. And with his work, Jenner saved more lives than the work of anyone else.
In Spain, Carlos IV, concerned for his subjects and informed of the effects of this disease by Alejandro Malaspina, after returning from his scientific expedition, set in motion, with unusual speed for the time, a large expedition to bring the longed-for vaccine to the overseas territories. With determination and enthusiasm, he put Francisco Javier de Balmis y Berenguer, from Alicante, at the head of the expedition.
Arm by arm
The idea was excellent, but the problem was how to get the vaccine to those countries and, to make matters worse, to ensure that it arrived in good condition after a very long journey. The solution came from the children, 22 to be exact. And although they tried to get many families to volunteer their kids with the promise of training them until they had a decent job, they didn’t get any. In the end, they had to turn to orphaned children in Santiago de Compostela and La Coruña. But how would they transport the vaccine? What were the children for?
The method, although primitive, was very ingenious. The small children would be the carriers of the solution, with a progressive inoculation procedure. The virus was introduced into two children and when they developed the disease in an attenuated form, the operation was repeated with another pair. In this way, arm by arm, the long-awaited vaccine would arrive fresh in America, ready to be used in the population.
Thus, with everything prepared and their spirits intact, on 30 November 1803, the corvette “María Pita” left La Coruña for the overseas territories of the Spanish Empire. Aboard were 22 orphans who were to carry the cure for the terrible disease that was ravaging the world.
Nurse Isabel Zendal
Balmis did not travel alone, as he took with him Isabel Zendal, a woman who was crucial in caring for the foundlings, to make their journey more bearable, and without her, it would have been impossible for the expedition to reach its destination. This Galician nurse, the first in the world on an international mission, had enormous merit as she showed infinite patience during the crossing, entertaining the 22 children, 7 of them under 3 years of age, in a 30-metre sailing boat without being able to light even a stove for fear of fire.
Also travelling as deputy leader of the expedition was Josep Salvany, a Catalan doctor recommended by Carlos IV, who helped in the titanic task of vaccination in the new world. Sick with typhus and believing that the change of climate would benefit him, he died with his boots on, in the line of duty and inoculating vaccines.
According to available data and recent studies by Paula Caffarena, the vaccine was already available in certain overseas territories when Balmis’ expedition arrived. As the metropolis was far away, many territories such as Cuba or Puerto Rico sought the vaccine on their own, and even in Lima the vials with the cure were traded in the street, so when the expedition set anchor, many people were already vaccinated.
Inoculating the cure
Although angry that they were already ahead of schedule, on arriving in Venezuela in March 1804, they began the journey of inoculating the population with the vaccine. Salvany set out for SOuth America, crossing mountains, rivers and valleys with the noble mission in mind. In every church in the new world, the priests, while baptising the population, vaccinated them, recording each inoculation.
Balmis headed north to Mexico and from there, with new orphans, set sail for the Philippines. An attempt was made to make the voyage pleasant for the children, but the captain of the ship “Magellan” reneged on the deal and placed them in a cabin infested with rats and filth. It was a gruelling voyage for the children who eventually reached their destination.
It was not a mission that more than achieved what it set out to do, as the vaccine had already reached the overseas territories, not all of them, but those closest to the coast. But the most important milestone was that it was the largest public health operation ever undertaken. An expedition that transported the vaccine, taught how to inoculate it in places where it had not arrived, and declared war on an accursed disease. And, above all, it regulated the spread of a medicine and the interaction of peoples.
If Balmis, Zendal and Salvany had been American, English or French, they would be world-famous. But they are Spanish and many will not know this story or it will sound far away. Things that happen and are left out of the vast Spanish history.
To find out more, it is advisable to read the book “A Flor de Piel” by the writer Javier Moro.