Are pandemics conquered at last?

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The Star of Chile: "A Cure for Smallpox"

On August 3 1872, a Berlin medical man, Dr. Zueler, announced that he had discovered that xylol, a chemical compound, could cure smallpox by acting as a disinfectant. Though this  idea was later found to be erroneous, it inspired new optimism in many Chileans. By October 26, 1872, the number of smallpox patients in hospitals had begun to decrease.

Plague, too, would finally be conquered, although not until the 20th century. Although the disease raged in Chile from the early 1900s until 1906, and worldwide for centuries, preventative policies and efforts at last yielded effective results. Despite several suspected cases still in Valparaiso in 1906, the transmission of plague was finally controlled by Vina Del Mar authorities. Local authorities focused on disinfecting public offices and hospitals, while Chilean people also became increasingly aware of the risks of unhygienic conditions and began to sanitize their households as well. Finally, disinfectants were widely used in poorer areas to slow down outdoor transmission of the disease. Consequently, no new cases of plague were identified after May 13, 1906.

After a seemingly endless cycle of health crises, Chile developed effective methods of slowing the transmission of highly contagious diseases. Yet the horror of historical pandemics continued to haunt the public imagination.

As we have seen all too clearly in the 21st century, the threat posed by highly contagious diseases still lingers, no matter how civilized we may think ourselves. And just as it did to 19th century Chile, 21st century globalization brings risks as well as advantages.

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This bit of doggeral, "Plagued Panama," was reprinted in the Anglo-American colony's newspaper The Star of Chile and bears witness to the colonists' struggle to find humor in the most difficult circumstances. As a side note, the inventive spelling of its heading, "orijinal poetry," demonstrates the fact that the English-speaking colonists were increasingly influenced by their Chilean hosts.

Unified through calamity, Chile memorialized its epidemic experiences in poetry and literature, carving fear and crisis into each citizen's mind.


"Cure for Small Pox," Valparaiso and West Coast Mail, vol. 4, no. 242 (Valparaiso, Chile), August 03, 1872.

A. Kendrick, "Plagued Panama," in Star of Chile, vol. 3, no. 36 (Valparaiso, Chile), April 08, 1905.

Are pandemics conquered at last?