Francisco Javier de Balmis

Date: 1803
Owner: Wikimedia
Source Type: Images

This statue depicts Dr. Francisco Javier de Balmis, the leader of a three year expedition to Latin America and the Philippines in order to provide the smallpox vaccine free of charge to as many people as possible and to organize vaccination centers within the colonies. The mission was ordered by Charles IV of Spain and was the first official program of sanitary vaccination in Latin America, predating the efforts of the Rockefeller Foundation by almost 100 years.

Balmis left from Spain in 1803 with a crew of medical technicians and twenty-three male orphans who acted as living receptacles for the disease. Each would carry smallpox in a controlled pustule on their arm for ten days before transferring it to another boy. Balmis and his team traveled first to Puerto Rico and Venezuela, where they split into two parties: Balmis led one group into Central America, Mexico, and the Philippines and his chief assistant, Dr. Jose Salvany Lleopart, continued throughout South America.

Salvany's team alone inoculated about 70,000 people against the virus, all free of charge, and disseminated literature about how to perform inoculations as well as the living serum needed for vaccinations. Salvany traveled through territory in the present-day countries of Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia (where he met Mutis), Chile, and Bolivia, where he died in 1810 at the age of thirty-four. Balmis led twenty-five Mexican orphans who bore the disease throughout Mexico, and even managed to bring these children with him to the Philippines, where he established more vaccination clinics.

This altruistic expedition throughout the Spanish Empire reflected the Enlightened ideals of the crown, and Balmis and Salvany were given a hero's welcome in almost every village and city in which they performed inoculations. It is a rare example of an expedition that sought to give to the American colonies and not merely take things from them.

Reference: Aldrete, J. Antonio. "Smallpox Vaccination in the early 19th century using Live Carriers: The Travels of Francisco Xavier de Balmis." In Southern Medical Journal, vol. 97, no. 4 (Apr., 2004), pp. 375-378.

CITATION: Francisco Javier Balmis, busto situado en la Facultad de Medicina de la Universidad Miguel Hernandez de San Juan de Alicante, Espana.