Arabick Roots

Arabick RootsSmallpox

Cassem AgaCassem Aga FRS on small-pox inoculation, translated from Arabic, 1729 (larger version). Aga provided a first hand account of inoculation and its safety record in ‘Tripoly, Tunis and Algier’, noting it was practised by both townsmen ‘and wild Arabs’ (meaning nomadic tribesmen). 


In the 18th century a small-pox epidemic hit London. Little was known about the disease in England, so Fellows of the Royal Society turned to the Muslim physician al-Razi to learn about the disease. They also investigated methods of inoculation, an immunisation practice that was common in the Muslim word, where healthy people were given a mild dose of the virus from an infected person.

PalestineInoculation in 20th century Palestine (larger version). This picture shows a traditional method of small-pox immunisation being performed in Palestine, using sharp thorns instead of needles. Credit: Science Museum, London.

From innoculation to vaccination

Doctors working in the Ottoman Empire as physicians to the British Embassy in Constantinople or the English Factory in Aleppo were among the first to write letters home about inoculation.  English people were still cautious about the practice because of its recent introduction in Europe.

The account of Cassem Aga FRS, the Ambassador of Tripoli, provided valuable reassurance about the long safety record of the practice in Muslim countries. In 1796 Edward Jenner replaced the small-pox virus with cowpox, achieving a method of vaccination that eventually led to the eradication of the virus.