We will never know their names.

The first victim could not have been recorded, for there was no written language to record it. They were someone’s daughter, or son, and someone’s friend, and they were loved by those around them. And they were in pain, covered in rashes, confused, scared, not knowing why this was happening to them or what they could do about it — victims of a mad, inhuman god. There was nothing to be done — humanity was not strong enough, not aware enough, not knowledgeable enough, to fight back against a monster that could not be seen.

It was in Ancient Egypt, where it attacked slave and pharaoh alike. In Rome, it effortlessly decimated armies. It killed in Syria. It killed in Moscow.  In India, five million dead. It killed a thousand Europeans every day in the 18th century. It killed more than fifty million Native Americans. From the Peloponnesian War to the Civil War, it slew more soldiers and civilians than any weapon, any soldier, any army. (Not that this stopped the most foolish and empty souls from attempting to harness the demon as a weapon against their enemies.)

Cultures grew and faltered, and it remained. Empires rose and fell, and it thrived. Ideologies waxed and waned, but it did not care. Kill. Maim. Spread. An ancient, mad god, hidden from view, that could not be fought, could not be confronted, could not even be comprehended. Not the only one of its kind, but the most devastating.

For a long time, there was no hope — only the bitter, hollow endurance of survivors.

In China, in the 10th century, humanity began to fight back.

It was observed that survivors of the mad god’s curse would never be touched again: They had taken a portion of that power into themselves, and were so protected from it. Not only that, but this power could be shared by consuming a remnant of the wounds. There was a price, for you could not take the god’s power without first defeating it — but a smaller battle, on humanity’s terms. 

By the 16th century, the technique spread to India, then across Asia, the Ottoman Empire and, in the 18th century, Europe. In 1796, a more powerful technique was discovered by Edward Jenner.

An idea began to take hold: Perhaps the ancient god could be killed.

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in a common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; fewer neighbors were crippled; fewer parents had to bury their children.

At the dawn of the 20th century, for the first time, humanity banished the enemy from entire regions of the world. Humanity faltered many times in its efforts, but there were individuals who never gave up, who fought for the dream of a world where no child or loved one would ever fear the demon ever again. Viktor Zhdanov, who called for humanity to unite in a final push against the demon; the great tactician Karel Raška, who conceived of a strategy to annihilate the enemy; Donald Henderson, who led the efforts in those final days.

The enemy grew weaker. Millions became thousands, thousands became dozens. And then, when the enemy did strike, scores of humans came forth to defy it, protecting all those whom it might endanger.

The enemy’s last attack in the wild was on Ali Maow Maalin, in 1977. For months afterwards, dedicated humans swept the surrounding area, seeking out any last, desperate hiding place where the enemy might yet remain.

They found none.

Thirty-five years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world, was destroyed.

You are a member of the species that did that. Never forget what we are capable of when we band together and declare battle on what is broken in the world.

Happy Smallpox Eradication Day.



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:21 AM

On December 9th, and probably for future Decembers 9th, we will feature this post on the front page to commemorate Smallpox Eradication Day. 

(Some places use May 8th as the date to celebrate smallpox eradication; we've seen both dates used in different places, so we'll stick with Jai's date.)

Remember that hard problems can be solved, and that we are capable of working together when the conditions are correct.

I'm curating this post, which is an EA classic. Curation isn't generally for older posts, but we have lots of new users coming in (so a classic might be more helpful than usual), and we're soon approaching smallpox eradication day, anyway.

And as often, I love the Our World in Data entry on the subject. Here's a chart from that entry:

I think this is one of the best pieces of EA creative writing of all time.

A French translation of this post is available here.

A Spanish translation is now also available.

A Norwegian translation of this post is available here.

This post takes a well-known story about impact (smallpox eradication), and makes it feel more visceral. The style is maybe a little heavy-handed, but it brought me along emotionally in a way that can be useful in thinking about past successes. I'd like to see somewhat more work like this, possibly on lesser-known successes in a more informative (but still evocative) style.

The Effective Altruism Forum Podcast has created an audio version of this post here: https://anchor.fm/ea-forum-podcast/episodes/500-Million--But-Not-A-Single-One-More-e15ff61

In all of human history, there had been no other disease like smallpox. It was vicious: It killed at least a third of those infected, and scarred or blinded most of the survivors. It was fast-moving, traveling everywhere that men had gone, carried by armies and traders and missionaries and slaves. It was relentless, roaring up into periodic epidemics, but never fully disappearing in between.

And it had always been there. The written records of its assaults on humanity went back more than three thousand years. Over the centuries, smallpox had devastated cities, changed the course of battles, and stalled the growth of empires. It had shuffled the leadership of dynasties like a pack of playing cards, decimating the royal houses of England, Holland, France, and Austria, and killing rulers in India, China, and Japan.

— From Beating Back the Devil

Thanks Jai! I thought this piece was outstanding. I also loved What Almost Was.

This reminds of Nick Bostrom's story, "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant". Maybe somebody will write a story like this about ageing instead of smallpox in the future.

It is remarkable what humans can do when we think carefully and coordinate.

This short essay inspires me to work harder for the things I care about. Thank you for writing it.

Sharing this here for those viewing this post today (Dec. 9, 2020): 

The Future of Life Institute (an EA-aligned org) is awarding their annual Future of Life Award in about 8 hours time to Viktor Zhdanov and Bill Foege, for their critical contributions to the eradication of smallpox!

If you'd like to attend the event, learn more about it here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1324489021234988

The event will include the following people:
- Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases,
- Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist,
- Jennifer Doudna, Berkeley Biochemist and 2020 Nobel Laureate.
Previous winners are Vasili Arkhipov, Stanislav Petrov and Mathew Meselson, who helped prevent two nuclear wars and one bioweapon arms race, and they/family members will join the celebration. The event will also feature a panel discussion moderated by MIT Prof. Max Tegmark about interesting issues relevant to this year’s award. You can find more information about the award here: https://futureoflife.org/future-of-life-award/

To attend the event, join via the following links:
Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88376985987?pwd=V0tzY3ltNEwrZHFTWGVrRmNSZS9idz09
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-rCCy3FQ-GItDimSR9lhzw

Sadly just missed this -- is there a recording? Couldn't find one on the Youtube page, nor the award website.

You can see the recording here. It was a great ceremony.!

Very well written, thanks for the show!

Re-read this again just now and truly is a tremendous piece!

How do I create my own post in this forum?

You can click on your username in the upper-right corner. Under "My Drafts", there will be an option for "New Post".

You can also hover over your username, and the drop-down menu that appears should include an option to create a new post.

Maybe someone will write an essay like this about aging in a few decades when we find a solution for it.