On the 11th September 1978, Janet Parker became the last recorded person in the world to die from smallpox. Parker was a medical photographer working at the University of Birmingham Medical School who was infected with smallpox from a nearby lab that is believed to have been spread by air currents through service ducts within the building.
At the time of her infection, the World Health Organisation had almost completed its successful international smallpox eradication programme. Although the last naturally occurring infection had been recorded the previous year, various laboratories around the world – including one at the University of Birmingham Medical School – were continuing research on strains of the virus that were a threat to eradicating the disease.
Parker’s darkroom in the hospital was directly above a laboratory where research on live smallpox viruses was carried out. It’s believed that the virus had spread from the laboratory while being handled on the 24th and 25th July, when Parker is known to have spent longer than normal in the room where the ducting connected.
Parker became ill on the 11th August, but nine days passed before she was admitted to hospital and her infection was identified as smallpox. Transferred to the Catherine-de-Barnes Isolation Hospital outside Solihull, she and a number of other people with whom she had had close contact were placed in quarantine. Parker died on the 11th September, but her death was preceded by that of her father – who died of cardiac arrest shortly after visiting his daughter – and the suicide of the scientist in charge of the laboratory at the University of Birmingham.