Janet Parker
Janet Parker was the last known person to die from smallpox
Smallpox was an infectious disease unique to humans, caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor. The disease is also known by the Latin names Variola or Variola vera, which is a derivative of the Latin varius, meaning "spotted", or varus, meaning "pimple"...

. She was a medical photographer and worked in the Anatomy
Anatomy is a branch of biology and medicine that is the consideration of the structure of living things. It is a general term that includes human anatomy, animal anatomy , and plant anatomy...

 Department of the University of Birmingham Medical School
University of Birmingham Medical School
The University of Birmingham Medical School is one of Britain's largest and oldest medical schools with over 400 Medics graduating each year. It is based at the University of Birmingham in Edgbaston, Birmingham, England...

. Parker died after being accidentally exposed to a strain of smallpox virus that was grown in a research laboratory, on the floor below the Anatomy Department. The event led to the suicide of Professor Henry Bedson, the then Head of the Microbiology Department.

An official government inquiry into Parker's death was led by Professor R. A. Shooter, whose report was debated in the British Parliament. Parker's death triggered radical changes in how dangerous pathogens were studied in the UK.
The University was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive
Health and Safety Executive
The Health and Safety Executive is a non-departmental public body in the United Kingdom. It is the body responsible for the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare, and for research into occupational risks in England and Wales and Scotland...

 for breach of Health and Safety legislation but was cleared in Court.


Smallpox is an infectious disease
Infectious disease
Infectious diseases, also known as communicable diseases, contagious diseases or transmissible diseases comprise clinically evident illness resulting from the infection, presence and growth of pathogenic biological agents in an individual host organism...

 unique to humans, caused by either of two virus variants named Variola major and Variola minor. The disease is also known by the Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 names Variola or Variola vera, which is a derivative of the Latin varius, meaning spotted, or varus, meaning "pimple". The term "smallpox" was first used in Europe in the 15th century to distinguish variola from the great pox (syphilis
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the spirochete bacterium Treponema pallidum subspecies pallidum. The primary route of transmission is through sexual contact; however, it may also be transmitted from mother to fetus during pregnancy or at birth, resulting in congenital syphilis...



At the time of her death, Parker lived in Burford Park Road, Kings Norton
Kings Norton
Kings Norton is an area of Birmingham, England. It is also a Birmingham City Council ward within the formal district of Northfield.-History:...

, Birmingham, UK, and was employed at the University of Birmingham Medical School. She often worked in a darkroom above a laboratory where research on live smallpox viruses was being conducted. The viruses probably spread through a service duct that connected the two floors. On August 11, 1978, Parker (who had been vaccinated against smallpox in 1966) fell ill; she had a headache and pains in her muscles. She developed spots that were thought to be a benign rash. Ms Parker was admitted to East Birmingham (now Heartlands) Hospital on August 24 and diagnosed (by Professor Alasdair Geddes and Dr. Thomas Henry Flewett
Thomas Henry Flewett
Dr Thomas Henry Flewett, MD, FRCPath, FRCP was a founder member of the Royal College of Pathologists and was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1978...

) as being infected with Variola major, the most lethal strain of smallpox. The next day, smallpox virus was confirmed by electron microscopy on fluid from her rash. Janet Parker was transferred to Catherine-de-Barnes
Catherine-de-Barnes is a village within the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull in the English county of West Midlands...

, (then an isolation hospital) where she died of smallpox on September 11, 1978. Many people had close contact with Parker before she was admitted, but only her mother contracted the disease. Parker's mother, Hilda Witcomb, survived, but her father, Frederick Witcomb, died aged 77 following a cardiac arrest when visiting Parker in the hospital.
On September 6, Professor Henry Bedson, the son of Sir Samuel Phillips and the head of the medical microbiology department, committed suicide. He cut his throat in the garden shed at his home and died at the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Birmingham a few days later. His suicide note read "I am sorry to have misplaced the trust which so many of my friends and colleagues have placed in me and my work."

In 1977, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had told Henry Bedson that his application for his laboratory to become a Smallpox Collaborating Centre had been rejected. This was partly because of safety concerns; the WHO wanted as few laboratories as possible handling the virus.

Shooter report

The declassified official report on the incident noted that Bedson failed to inform the authorities of changes in his research that could have affected safety. Shooter discovered that the Dangerous Pathogens Advisory Group inspected the laboratory on two occasions and each time recommended that the smallpox research be continued there, despite the fact that the facilities at the laboratory fell far short of those required by law. Several of the staff at the laboratory had received no special training. Bedson even allowed a school-leaver to work with smallpox after only nine months as a trainee technician. Inspectors from the World Health Organisation had told Bedson that the physical facilities at the laboratory did not meet WHO standards, but had nonetheless only recommended a few changes in laboratory procedure. Bedson lied to the WHO about the volume of work handled by the laboratory, telling them that it had progressively declined since 1973, when in fact it had risen dramatically as Bedson desperately tried to finish his work before the laboratory closed. Janet Parker had not been vaccinated recently enough to protect her against smallpox.

The report concluded that Mrs Parker had probably been infected by a strain of smallpox called Abid (named after one of its earlier victims, a three-year-old Pakistani boy), which was being handled in the smallpox laboratory during July 24–25, 1978. The virus had travelled in air currents up a service duct from the laboratory below, to a room in the Anatomy Department which was used for telephone calls; on July 25, Parker had spent much more time there than usual ordering photographic materials because the financial year was about to end.

In popular fiction

The Parker case provides a major plot element in the Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell is a contemporary American crime writer. She is widely known for writing a popular series of novels featuring the heroine Dr. Kay Scarpetta, a medical examiner.-Early life:...

 novel Unnatural Exposure
Unnatural Exposure (novel)
Unnatural Exposure is a crime fiction novel by Patricia Cornwell. It is the eighth book in the Dr. Kay Scarpetta series. The story is set in Richmond, Virginia and Ireland.-Plot summary:...

. The killer, an apparently respectable microbiologist
Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, which are defined as any microscopic organism that comprises either a single cell , cell clusters or no cell at all . This includes eukaryotes, such as fungi and protists, and prokaryotes...

, turns out to have been a junior researcher at the medical school at the time of Parker's death, and to have been scapegoat
Scapegoating is the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals , individuals against groups , groups against individuals , and groups against groups Scapegoating is the practice of singling out any...

ed for the accident after Professor Bedson's suicide. Nursing a grudge over her blighted career, she develops a new strain of poxvirus
Poxviruses are viruses that can, as a family, infect both vertebrate and invertebrate animals.Four genera of poxviruses may infect humans: orthopox, parapox, yatapox, molluscipox....

 from material stolen from the Birmingham lab, and attempts to start an epidemic.

The case has also been briefly mentioned in the TV series House
House (TV series)
House is an American television medical drama that debuted on the Fox network on November 16, 2004. The show's central character is Dr. Gregory House , an unconventional and misanthropic medical genius who heads a team of diagnosticians at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in...

in episode A Pox on Our House. Janet Parker was mentioned by name in the episode, while Bedson's subsequent suicide was referenced.

See also

  • Rahima Banu
    Rahima Banu
    Rahima Banu Begum is the last known person to have been infected with naturally occurring Variola major smallpox. The case occurred on 16 October 1975, when the two-year old Banu was living in the village of Kuralia on Bhola Island in the Bangladesh district of Barisal. Her case was reported...

    , last person infected with naturally occurring Variola major
  • Ali Maow Maalin
    Ali Maow Maalin
    Ali Maow Maalin is the last person on earth known to be infected with naturally occurring Variola minor smallpox. At age 23, Maalin was a cook at the hospital in the town of Merca, Somalia, as well as an occasional vaccinator for a World Health Organization smallpox eradication team...

    , last person infected with naturally occurring Variola minor
  • List of unusual deaths

External links

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