J. Michael Lane was an epidemiologist who spent most of his life as probably the major player in helping to eradicate the smallpox virus. He traveled to Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries to combat outbreaks and create vaccination programs. In 1967, despite limited availability of smallpox vaccines, he helped reduce third-world epidemics by starting “ring vaccinations” in which all relatives and close associates of infected people in third world countries were vaccinated. By 1969, 100 million Africans had been vaccinated. In 1969, his report published in The New England Journal of Medicine called for the end of smallpox vaccinations in the United States because:
• nobody had developed smallpox in the US for many years, and
• complications from the vaccine could result in one death per million vaccinations.
In 1973, he became the last director of the CDC’s Smallpox Eradication Bureau. At that time, smallpox had long-since disappeared from North America, but was still killing and destroying lives throughout the world, mostly in rural areas. In 1977, the last case of naturally-transmitted smallpox was recorded in Somalia. In 1980, the World Health Organization, composed of the health ministers of 190 countries, certified that smallpox had been eradicated. The last reported case in the world involved Janet Parker, a medical photographer who was infected in a lab accident in a British hospital and died in 1978. Since then, forty years later, there have been no reported cases of smallpox anywhere in the world. On October 21, 2020, Lane died at age 85 from colon cancer.
Early Life and Career
Lane was born in Boston in 1936 into a family that had inherited a fortune and used it to help humanity. His father was a treasurer of the national N.A.A.C.P., spoke on racial equality at Black churches and colleges in the South in the 1940s, and sponsored Jewish refugees from Germany during World War II. His mother was a director of Planned Parenthood and the Y.W.C.A. Lane went to elite private schools and was graduated from Yale in 1957 and Harvard Medical School in 1961. He then joined the CDC (now the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in 1963 and got a master’s in public health from U/Cal, Berkeley in 1967.
After being one of the major leaders in the eradication of smallpox, he remained at the CDC as director of the Center for Prevention Services from 1980 to 1987, taught at Emory University from 1988 to 1991 and the Australian National University in Canberra from 1991 to 1993, and returned to teach at Emory from 1993 to 2001. After the terrorist attacks in 2001, he trained Army personnel to defend against bioterrorism. He retired in 2002, and received the Public Health Service’s Commendation Medal.
He married his first wife, Carolina Hernandez, in 1969 and they divorced in 1998. That same year, he married Lila Elizabeth Summer. He remained in top physical condition most of his life, and at age 79 he participated in a cross-country walk from Atlanta to Seattle. He died in 2020 after a long battle with colon cancer.
The 10,000-Year Smallpox Epidemic
Smallpox is likely to have come to humans from rats more than 10,000 years ago, killing hundreds of millions of humans until a world-wide-immunization program led primarily by the United States and Russia eradicated that disease. Smallpox was reported in Egyptian mummies 3,000 years ago and was described in Chinese writings 4,000 years ago. During this long epidemic, smallpox killed three of every 10 infected people and most of its survivors were left with permanent scars. When European explorers and settlers invaded North America, they brought smallpox with them and killed an estimated 80 percent of the native American population.
Smallpox is one of the most deadly diseases known to man. It is incredibly contagious because coughing, sneezing, or direct contact with any body fluids spreads the virus. So does touching contaminated clothing, bedding or anything else that contains the virus. The virus cripples the immune system by producing an interferon binding protein that inactivates gamma globulins molecules made by our bodies to prevent the virus from reproducing (FASEB J, 2010: 24; 1479–1488). Doctors have never had a cure, so all they could do was immunize the world’s population against it.
Thousands of years ago, some people were apparently immunized by taking material from smallpox sores and scratching it onto the skin of uninfected people. This caused smallpox disease and killed some of the recipients, but some of these immunized people survived and were protected. In 1796 a doctor in England, Edward Jenner, noticed that some women who got cowpox from milking infected cows were protected from getting human smallpox. He scraped cowpox fluid from an infected sore on a milkmaid and scratched it onto the skin of the nine-year-old son of his gardener. Several months later, he exposed the child several times to smallpox and the child did not develop the disease. Afraid of public criticism, he waited more than five years before he published “On the Origin of the Vaccine Inoculation,” and gave the world the first successful way to prevent smallpox in humans by causing people to develop cowpox from cows to make them immune to human smallpox.
Comparing the Smallpox Virus to COVID-19
Today we are suffering from a world-wide pandemic of COVID-19. The virus that causes this disease appears to have come from some other animal, probably a bat, and before 2019, no human had ever been reported to have suffered an infection with that virus. That means that in 2019, no humans were immune to it and all humans who would be exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 would become infected with it. If you have a strong immune system and were exposed to COVID-19, you would probably have a relatively mild disease or no symptoms at all. On the other hand, if you have a weakened immune system, you would be likely to have a serious disease or even death. Today,
• All humans exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 will become infected.
• Risk factors for a weak immune system include being over 65, having high blood pressure, diabetes, damage to liver, kidneys, heart or lungs, being overweight and so forth. Having one or more of these risk factors increases your chances of becoming seriously ill or dying if you are exposed to the virus.
• The only way we know of to keep this epidemic from lasting as long as smallpox did is to immunize a large percentage of the world’s population, just as we did with smallpox.
• Even if you are not afraid of having COVID-19 or various other infectious diseases, you get vaccinations as an act of consideration for your fellow humans.
• If those who oppose vaccinations have their way, COVID-19 could last as long as smallpox did.
J. Michael Lane
February 14, 1936 – October 21, 2020