The 22 Angels and the boys from Dickens’ Oliver

Some Tenerife residents who are not fluent Spanish speakers may have been somewhat confused as to the meaning behind the “Vacunate Canarias” adverts appearing in mainstream and social media lately. They feature a bunch of kids dressed up like Oliver of Dickens fame and shouting “Vacunate” (get yourself vaccinated) at the camera – not because the modern day message isn’t an excellent one; it is, and not just for the Canary Islands, but what is the historical story that inspired the adverts?

Be like them, become part of the solution and part of history: #Vac煤nate

The backdrop for the adverts refers to the Balmis Expedition, officially called the Real Expedici贸n Filantr贸pica de la Vacuna (Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition) which was a healthcare initiative that lasted from 1803 to 1806, led by Royal Doctor to King Charles IV of Spain, Francisco Javier de Balmis.

The expedition set off from A Coru帽a in northwest Spain on 30 November 1803 and went on to vaccinate millions of inhabitants of Spanish America and Asia against smallpox.

The King’s daughter, Infanta Maria Teresa had died from smallpox and King Charles IV of Spain was keen to support the new initiative by Balmis against the disease, so gave his blessing to the expedition.

Vaccination in those days, was by inoculation with cowpox virus material, a much safer way to prevent smallpox than older methods had been. This kind of process had been pioneered by the English physician Edward Jenner in 1798.

The Balmis expedition sailed on the Maria Pita and carried 22 orphan boys (aged 3 to 10) as successive carriers of the virus, Balmis himself, a deputy surgeon, two assistants, two first-aid practitioners, three nurses, and Isabel Zendal G贸mez, the rectoress of Casa de Exp贸sitos, a La Coru帽a orphanage.

The mission took the vaccine to the Canary Islands, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, the Philippines and China. The ship carried also scientific instruments and translations of the Historical and Practical Treatise on the Vaccine by Moreau de Sarthe to be distributed to the local vaccine commissions which were to be founded.

The expedition saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. A feat that marked a turning point in medicine, initiating a battle against that disease that succeeded, more than a century later, in making smallpox the first and only human disease to be eradicated in 1978.

By Ecelan – Derivative work from:File:BlankMap-World6.svg (PD)File:Jeringuilla.svg (GFDL & Cc-by-sa)carrack in Open Clip Library (PD), author papapishu, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Philipp von Kapff, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In early 2020 the Spanish Ministry of Defence named its military deployment in support of the health initiative against the coronavirus ‘Operation Balmis’, also paying tribute to Francisco Javier Balmis (1753-1819)

Francisco Javier de Balmis had a remarkable career, he was born in Alicante on 2 December 1753. His parents were Antonio Balmis, a barber surgeon of French origin and Luisa Berenguer. At age 17 he began studying at the military hospital of Alicante.

He died in 1819 in Madrid after being during his lifetime; a military surgeon major, was admitted to the Real Academia M茅dica Matritense (the predecessor to the Royal Academy of Medicine), and received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Mexico, as well as becoming the physician of King Charles IV.